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Report Card: Mattias Norlinder established himself among Canadiens’ top prospects

Despite an injury and shortened season, the defender still had a pretty impressive year.

2020 World Junior Ice Hockey Championship, bronze medal match: Sweden vs Finland Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images

One of the late risers before last year’s NHL draft was an over-ager and MVP of the of the Swedish U20 playoffs. The fact that the whole of the NHL had put “return to sender” next to Mattias Norlinder’s name during the 2018 draft made some clubs reluctant to bite on the free-flowing defender a year ago. However, early in the third round, the Montreal Canadiens took a defender from the classic Swedish club Modo. The fact that he was nursing a scaphoid bone injury at home in Sweden didn’t bother Trevor Timmins and the rest of the scouting department; the performance that Norlinder had in the U20 playoffs, where he led his Modo to the gold medal, was enough.

What stands out in Norlinder’s case is the offence. He can really turn it on in the offensive zone and deliver both passes and shots with devastating accuracy. Sometimes it is easy to compare Norlinder to another young Swedish defender: Rasmus Dahlin.

When Eyes On The Prize spoke to Tobias Enström a quarter of the way into the season, he could not stop praising his defensive partner. “He has everything. He is skilled, he can skate, he can shoot the puck and he can play in his own end too. He’s got a bright future ahead of him. He is special.

“You can’t take away his offence and tell him to focus more on his defence because what makes him so good is his offence,” Enstrom continued. “If he keeps growing as a player like he is right now, I can’t see anyone hold him out of the lineup in the NHL when that [time] comes.”

”I think he made Enström better, too,” was the answer that Modo’s coach, Björn Hellkvist, gave before the season started in Sweden. There was no doubt that the pairing would be playing together when the season started.

Praise has been steady all throughout the season, and one of Norlinder’s goals was fulfilled when he was selected for the World Junior Championships in Czech Republic. While he was used as the seventh defender on the team, the experience was invaluable going forward.

Upon his return to Sweden’s second division, he was hit hard and sustained a concussion that kept him out of the lineup for six weeks. When he did return, he was awarded the ‘Guldgallret’ as the best junior in HockeyAllsvenskan.

Elite Prospects

Norlinder was the fourth-most-used defender in Modo during the season, usually lining up together with Enström. It is difficult to know if his usage would have changed if he was healthy the whole season, but since coach Hellkvist used Norlinder more than any other defender on his team when the games began to grow it importance, that placement likely would have risen.

The season didn’t finish the way Norlinder had hoped. The campaign was cut shot due to the coronavirus, and that prevented him and his team from earning a promotion. Instead he’s taken an alternate route to the SHL, choosing to sign with Frölunda for the next two seasons.

Pluses

Norlinder’s skating is great. He has the all-time speed record in Modo, besting players such as Peter Forsberg, Markus Näslund, the Sedins, Victor Hedman, and Mats Zuccarello for the top spot. Norlinder can also turn fast while still having control of the puck, something that makes him even more dangerous, especially as his zone entries are excellent and can be used to great effect to set up an offensive play.

His technique on his skates extends to his lateral movement. He can walk the blue line as the last defender as well as lead the power play from the back with his vision and read of the game.

His defensive acumen is solid, and his strong understanding of the game transfers from the offensive zone to the defensive zone with ease. He is usually in the right place at the right time for interceptions and screening offensive players out of the danger area.

During the interview, Enström pointed to the mental aspect as well. He mentioned that a mistake won’t make Norlinder lose focus or make him stop his own play in any way, but rather go out and do the same thing again — and succeed. It bodes well as this was something that his new coach in Frölunda, Roger Rönnberg, encouraged Dahlin to do.

Minuses

While Norlinder scored seven goals this season despite having missed quite a few games to injury, his shot is a weakness. Not because it is a bad shot, but rather for the reason that he doesn’t use it enough. Norlinder prefers to look for the pass rather than take aim and let loose. In order for him to become a more complete player, this is something that needs to be addressed.

As a young man in a pro league, Norlinder has been outmuscled at times. He is stronger than he looks but there is much to build on his lanky frame. The good thing here is that Frölunda is known for its tough summer training, and with the short travel in the SHL, it will be easy to continue to build up his body even during the season.

Discussion

There is no doubt that Mattias Norlinder would go higher if there was a re-draft after this season’s performance. He has impressed with both his play on the ice and his maturity off the ice. He has shown throughout the season that he can deliver when asked, and there’s no better example than during the first game in the playoff series against local rivals Björklöven. Norlinder had a goal and an assist while playing 36:12 over almost five periods of hockey when Modo won on the road in the opening game of a series that wouldn’t be completed. Coach Hellkvist relied on Norlinder to play more than anyone in Modo, and the defenceman was almost double-shifted in the end when Modo had lost one defender due to a match penalty.

Grade: B

Norlinder displayed his skill, development, and maturity on the second division of Sweden this past season. The defender was instrumental in his team’s success, especially early on, and delivered highlight-reel goals and assists. His goal of making the Swedish Junior Team was fulfilled and he came home from the tournament with a bronze medal. With the blue line that Sweden possessed it wasn’t surprising that Norlinder didn’t get to play as much as he might have wanted, however he showed maturity to step in and play a strong defensive game when he took over Rasmus Sandin’s defensive responsibilities.

The one negative thing for Norlinder’s season is the concussion, but once more he showed maturity by not rushing back and keeping the tinted practice visor on even in game play.

Moving to one of Europe’s top teams with all that entails with media, playoffs, and international games will only benefit Norlinder’s development. Coach Rönnberg has developed plenty of NHL talent and has made a point of signing Norlinder for his offensive skills. It should only benefit the prospect, and the Canadiens, in the long run.

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