When he was selected 64th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in 2019, Mattias Norlinder was a bit of “another defenceman in the system.” After all, the Habs had just selected Jayden Struble one round prior and already had Alexander Romanov. One year later, after a rise that can only be described as meteoric, no one is thinking of Norlinder as just another name on the prospect list anymore.
When Eyes On The Prize last checked in with Norlinder, the defender had just returned to the ice after a prolonged concussion-related absence and was bracing, together with his Modo squad, for a playoff fight as they aimed for promotion to the Swedish Hockey League.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic cut those plans, and the plans of many others around the globe, short.
Nonetheless, the SHL is still in Norlinder’s future as the defender will suit up for Frölunda HC next season. Reached via phone by EOTP European correspondent Patrik Bexell, Norlinder agreed that the SHL was a natural next step for him. “I think that the SHL is best for me right now. [Regarding the AHL], I haven’t spoken to Montreal about that, but I think the SHL is better for me right now.”
Moving up to the big leagues
Norlinder is anticipating that the move will be a challenge, as he believes that the SHL is more structured than the HockeyAllsvenskan, but is optimistic that he can maintain his current playstyle. “I think I can be [as offensive-minded]. I hope so anyway. It’s going to take work to be able to keep that up, and it’s also going to take a certain fearlessness. I’ve just got to keep doing my thing, not be afraid of making mistakes, just go.”
As he prepares for the move, Norlinder is hoping to apply the lessons learned during his time in the HockeyAllsvenskan. “[My first full season at the senior level] made me recognize that you don’t play at the same level every game — it can’t be your top game every night — and I need to work on flattening out the ups and downs through the season, to become more consistent.”
Norlinder is also taking his time on the injured reserve list last summer after an accident in the gym as a learning opportunity. “It was tough, I never had an injury that lasted that long, almost twelve weeks, so it was new for me. [In hindsight,] it was kind of a great experience for me to have, learning early on that not everything will go your way all the time.”
Prior to his concussion, the youngster was near the top of the stats table for HockeyAllsvenskan defenders. A collection of highlight-reel plays put Norlinder on the radar both locally and internationally, and despite missing a large portion of the season, the youngster was awarded the “Guldgallret” as the best junior-age player in the HockeyAllsvenskan. The voting results took Norlinder by surprise, as did the on-ice ceremony at the Fjällräven Center during his first game back after six weeks away.
Norlinder admits that while he didn’t think about such things on the ice, it was “hard to not see the media and the texts and stuff like that” after the games. The youngster admits that the international attention was “kind of nice,” and that the increased attention from Montreal was especially motivational during tougher stretches.
More than just legs
Norlinder’s speed is the most eye catching element of his highlight packages. But while the defender acknowledges that his skating is a big part of his success, he bristles a little bit at the notion that he’s a one-dimensional player. Although admitting to breaking a Modo team record for fastest skater — superseding such illustrious company like Mats Zuccarello, Peter Forsberg, and Markus Näslund — “one or two years ago”, Norlinder thinks that he still needs to work on his speed, describing himself as “not that fast”.
When asked about how he is commonly compared to Philip Broberg, another defender best known for end-to-end rushes, Norlinder isn’t sold on the notion. “I think I’m more of a two-way D than he is, and that he’s better than me as a skater. [From the TV] We might look similar, but he’s Broberg and I’m Norlinder.”
The highlight of Norlinder’s season, especially given the cancellation of the HockeyAllsvenskan playoffs, has to be his selection to the Swedish national team at the IIHF World Junior Championships. This was the first opportunity for Norlinder to don the jersey of ‘Tre Kronor’ at any international tournament, and had been a long-term goal for the defender. Going as the seventh defenceman didn’t afford him much ice-time, Norlinder admits, but he’s happy for the experience nonetheless.
“First of all, it was a fantastic tournament, and fantastic to be part of the team. It was a great experience, despite not playing as much as I wanted, to experience a national team set-up, and to travel to international tournaments and experience the atmosphere. It was just a real fun trip with the boys.”
Norlinder learned from his on-ice opportunities too: “I think I could have taken more chances, more rushes, been more of a threat out there. It was a new situation for me to play as a seventh D — it was kind of tough to only play seven minutes a game. I’ve taken that experience with me as well.”
Looking for certainties
Given the global situation, it’s hard to predict what next season will bring—or even when it will start. Right now, Norlinder is taking small steps with regard to his off-season training plans, aiming to get a little more serious in a week or so. The priority right now is to just “keep the body moving.” Although it’s unclear when they will have to be faced, there will be new challenges on the path ahead for the young defender. A path that will hopefully lead him to rue Sainte-Catherine one day.