“I have really high expectations on him. He should be a spark for our team. He should be known in the league as one of the best offensive defencemen in the league.” Frölunda’s head coach, Roger Rönnberg, doesn’t hold back when it comes to Mattias Norlinder.
About a year ago, many Montreal Canadiens fans didn’t know what to expect from Norlinder. Eyes were firmly fixed — and rightly so — on college hockey for recent draft pick Cole Caufield, or on the KHL where Alexander Romanov resided. However, it didn’t take long for fans who saw the highlights from Modo to figure out that Montreal had drafted another standout blue-liner from Europe.
Having played centre in his early years, the skating and understanding of the game was already there, but Norlinder elevated his game in HockeyAllsvenskan next to the NHL alumni, Tobias Enström.
When Covid-19 stopped play, Modo was fighting for promotion, but the Swedish league system stayed intact as all sports were cancelled. It opened the door for Norlinder to pick and choose his own destination as every SHL club enquired about his status. Norlinder chose Frölunda HC, the club that fostered Rasmus Dahlin, who was also coached by Rönnberg.
“He has had a really good summer, where he has gained some weight and is a stronger and more fit defenceman right now,” Mr. Rönnberg explained. “He is more explosive now, he can use his nice skating better because he is stronger in the legs and in the core area. I think this is the biggest thing he gained from all the hours in the gym this summer.”
Norlinder is already known for his fantastic skating, so improving it should help him on defence but it should also create havoc for the opposing defenders. This has been evident when he intercepts a pass in the neutral zone and sets off. There aren’t many defences that can keep up with him when he hits top speed. The additional leg muscles and core strength should also help along the boards and defending in front of the net.
He wants to be known as a good defender, not only for his rushes and highlight-reel turns. During the pre-season, he has looked more secure, even if he has played against better teams than last season, though he still makes mistakes. One thing he needs to improve is that he is puck-watching a bit too much in the defensive zone, forgetting that there are threats behind him. This is something he does while defending but also when he starts the build up of play in the defensive zone, and he will needs to focus on fixing that.
“I think with all the young players you need to protect them and make sure they feel safe enough to develop, because otherwise they will not play to their limits,” Mr. Rönnberg continues. “It is so important in their younger age, because you set your identity as a player, who you are, and if you are not able to play 100% out of your potential and show it every night, you maybe won’t find the last percentage of your offensive game as a player. I will really push him and I will also protect him when he falls.”
When Mr. Rönnberg coached Dahlin, he gave a lot of freedom and always made sure to let the defenceman play his game, this should bode well for Norlinder’s development. He wants to always be involved in the play, with the puck on his stick. He pushes the puck up the ice, creates in the offensive zone, and is aggressive to get it back before opponents get in his zone. He is also keen to join the rush, which might lead to mistakes, but he has a coach that wants him to play his own style. This should benefit his development in many ways, and should give the defender a chance to really stamp his own authority on the game.
What should the expectations be for Norlinder this season? I have asked some of the experts on hockey in Sweden for help in order to try to answer that question.
”My expectations for Norlinder are high. I am convinced that he is one of the players we will speak the most about during the upcoming season. He was fantastic to follow last year, and he will continue to develop this season. Frölunda is the right place for him to be. They have a history of developing young defenders and especially trusting them and letting them grow. He will continue his fantastic raids up the ice, even if he will fail at times, Norlinder will be one of the breakout players in the SHL this season.”
“Norlinder has not played a single minute in the SHL, but has already won the trust from his head coach, Roger Rönnberg. He is on the first power-play unit and gets a lot of time in the offensive zone. Compare that to Rasmus Dahlin, who didn’t even play on a power-play unit.
“Norlinder has a similar pattern of movement as Dahlin, he is an excellent skater and has a better shot than Dahlin. He’s not in Frölunda just to train, he is in Frölunda to learn something and develop into an NHL defender. This year’s breakthrough player in my opinion.”
”I have very high expectations on Mattias Norlinder. Ever since he pretty much came out of nowhere and made noise with Modo in HockeyAllsvenskan, his development has been nothing short of sensational! He is still somewhat of an unknown commodity in Swedish hockey, but I sense that will change within a month or two. The kid is special.”
”I expect Mattias to have a brilliant season. During the pre-season he has shown some pretty good skills, especially on the power play. I believe that the new atmosphere in Gothenburg will do Mattias good and help him to take the next step toward the NHL.”
“Norlinder is one of the most interesting prospects right now in Sweden. He can be a game-changer like Elias Pettersson in SHL this season. Yes, he is that good! And he plays for a top team ready to give him every opportunity to shine.”
Power-play time, trust, and a team that wants to control play ... it sounds really good for Norlinder’s development. The fact that Frölunda will most likely be a top-six club in the SHL and likely go deep in the Champions Hockey League — they are title-holders after all — means that he should come close to 70 games in one of the best leagues outside the NHL. It really bodes well for the development of a player that few knew little about a year ago.
Personally, having looked at the players eligible to be ‘Rookie of the Year’ in the SHL, I would say Norlinder is the frontrunner at the moment.
You can listen to the full interview with Roger Rönnberg about Norlinder below:
Coach Rönnberg on Norlinder after Frölunda signed him:
Former Winnipeg Jets defender and linemate (at the time) to Norlinder, Tobias Enström:
Coach Rönnberg on his coaching philosophy: