Going into this season the expectations for Mattias Norlinder were high, and rightly so. Most journalists and experts expected Norlinder to come into Frölunda’s SHL team to dominate. The preseason didn’t lower those expectations as the Montreal prospect was centre stage and firmly in the limelight, scoring goals and joining the rush.
The season started well, for both Norlinder and the team, where Norlinder was one of the top defenders in the SHL. He got selected to the National team for the Karjala Cup tournament in Finland, the tournament where Norlinder injured his shoulder.
Recovery was slow, and when the defender finally got back on the ice again, his skate got caught in a groove on the ice and he injured his knee. While Norlinder came back faster after this injury, it left him behind in his form. “I didn’t reach that level until late into the season. I reached another level, an even higher level, in the playoffs.”
Upon his return he was also paired with Jonathan Sigalet, losing his regular partner Jens Olsson in a reshuffle of the defensive pairings due to injuries and players leaving for the NHL season. The pairing was unlucky and chemistry wasn’t working on the ice.
Frölunda’s season imploded and the team finished seventh, but still managed to make the playoffs. That’s where Norlinder’s form finally caught up. In the playoffs, Norlinder was Frölunda’s best goalscorer and he had the most points of any player on the team. He increased his time on ice, moved to the first power-play unit, and was paired with Olsson once again. While the season finished on a sour note for Norlinder in regards to the club team, he was selected for the National team and the training camp that is being held prior to the World Championships.
The offensive and transition game has always been Norlinder’s strength and has remained so in the SHL. His skating gives him an edge in movement, both in speed and laterally. These are things that should make him the perfect quarterback on the power play, and in the end, that’s where Frölunda’s coach put him. During the playoffs, Norlinder got the chance to shine, and he took that chance, showing off slap shots, wrist shots and stick skills. His confidence rose and with that came the offensive output that had been lacking in the regular season.
One weakness that Norlinder has addressed is his defensive game. He is better in front of his own net. His core has been strengthened and this gives him a good balance, something that he has put to good use in the corners as well. Another year in Frölunda on the top pairing should really make Norlinder take another step in this department and he should be very close to NHL ready in his own zone.
It might just be me, but I don’t think that Norlinder works well with another offensive-minded defender. The pairing with Sigalet did not only have “bounces against us” as Norlinder said in his end-of-season interview with me. It was also communication breakdowns and a little bit of hubris from both players, something that led to bounces against the pair. You create your own luck and this pairing didn’t. Part of this is the way Frölunda plays, with defenders joining the cycle down low in the offensive zone, but Norlinder needs to “learn when to play his hand and when to fold” as Frölunda coach Roger Rönnberg says in the podcast link below.
Norlinder can also be caught puck-watching at times. He can be too confident in his skills with the stick as he tries to poke check the puck rather than to play physically. Norlinder himself says he needs to add a few kilos, and that should help him in this role.
These are the things that Norlinder will have to work on to be a successful top-four defender in the NHL. It helps when he is paired with a defensive-minded defender but Norlinder needs to use his high hockey IQ to be that responsible defender himself.
While many might be down on Norlinder’s season, I’m not. He started out well, before different injuries derailed his strong start. Add to that the fact that Frölunda had to change the defensive pairings because of an injury situation and players leaving for the NHL when the season started. When things mattered the most, in the playoffs, Norlinder became Frölunda’s go-to player and led the team in both points and goals. He also bookends the season with selections to the Swedish National team, and while these are small tournaments, it is the next natural step for Norlinder. He himself says that he took another step forward in the playoffs compared to the start of the season.
Another year in SHL should prepare him for the jump into an NHL role much in the same way Alexander Romanov and Artturi Lehkonen did when they came to Montreal.
Roger Rönnberg, before the quarterfinal and what to look for in Norlinder’s game:
Top 25 Under 25, with Frölunda’s defensive coach Kristoffer Näslund:
Roger Rönnberg, Norlinder and expectations on the season: