Frölunda opened up the SHL season with Mattias Norlinder on their blue line. The Swedish defender played his last game with Frölunda on Saturday before crossing the Atlantic to participate in the Montreal Canadiens’ rookie and training camps.
In order to get a better understanding of where Norlinder stands in his development and in Frölunda’s system, Eyes On The Prize travelled to Gothenburg and Frölunda’s practice facility to speak with defensive coach Kristoffer Näslund. He begins by describing Norlinder’s last season and comparing it to the season start this time around.
“Mattias has grown into his role after a year in the SHL. He started very well last year, but got into a dip after his injuries, suffered while with the national team. He worked himself up and finished strong. This year he has started on that level that he finished last season. He is more secure with the puck, covering it better.
“We knew he would be good offensively this year. He gets to use his shot on the power play as well, and he has scored twice in Champions Hockey League already. It is great to see him play in such a strong power-play unit. A unit that is starting to click, and they start to really understand each other. A lot has happened in that area of the game, for Norlinder, and for us.”
While Norlinder has been very good offensively, there are still a few questions in regard to his defensive abilities. “Defensively there are still things to work with, but he has become even stronger and that is something we’ll continue to help him with. It is the last bit really, to be consistent, to be meticulous, to be a bit faster in the defensive zone in order to cover his player, and keep the opponent on the outside.”
How do those things translate to the smaller NHL rinks? “With a smaller rink you have to be faster, even if there is less space to cover the game is faster and your thoughts will have to be faster too. His decisions aren’t wrong; when the bad things happen it is usually when he has to swap his coverage and cover a new opponent. I don’t see that as a major problem, it is something that he’ll learn on the job here in Frölunda.”
However, gap control is something that Norlinder has struggled with. He usually ends up trying to poke-check and gives a bit of space for the opposing player to work with, and sometimes that will make him stand out for the wrong reasons. What are the thoughts from the defensive coach in that regard?
“Frölunda’s style is to try to stop the opponents already in the offensive zone, or on our own blue line at the latest. That is his role on the ice, and sometimes his game will be wrong and sometimes he won’t have the support that he should have from forwards as well as his defensive partner. That can also affect that gap control that you mention. We have work to do when it comes to the gap, most definitely that’s where his room for improvement is. I am not worried though, because he is such a good skater. I think it is easy to point out the gap, and defensive coverage, as we know how good he is on the skates. He has to work a bit more with his feet in order to fix that.”
A question that has been raised is the fact that Norlinder rarely, if ever, plays on the penalty kill unit. Why is that, is it because he isn’t good enough? Näslund is sure as he answers, “NO! He could be playing box play, but it has to do with how we divide the ice time between the defenders. That is actually the only reason. It might be difficult to understand over there [in Montreal], where the top defender plays most, and then time on ice falls with each player.
“We have a little bit of a different approach here; the roles are very important to us. He could definitely be part of the [penalty kill] team, but for the moment we will go this route. It might change over time, but we start this way.” Another breath before Näslund goes to the positive angle of the answer. “It also means that he will get two straight minutes on the power play, so there are pros with the system as well. Everyone has their own niche, we have roles and then you fill those roles. As Mattias plays on the first power-play unit, he will get a lot of time on ice during that special-team assignment, which lets us use others to cover the penalty kill. As I said, Mattias could play in that role as well, there is no doubt about it, but it all comes down to the structure of the team.”
What about potentially losing one of the team’s best players at this stage of the season? “I don’t have that kind of in depth knowledge in regard to Montreal’s defenders to know if he can take a spot right now. We think he will come back to Frölunda, but if he has a great camp he might end up staying and if that’s the case then it’s an opportunity for Mattias and something that we will be proud of. We know the rules, and we will be happy for Mattias if he makes the cut.”