“It is an awfully good player that awaits the Montreal Canadiens in the future” — Frölunda head coach Roger Rönnberg
Mattias Norlinder’s rise through the levels of hockey was quiet at first. Despite scoring at a decent rate in the under-20 league for Modo, he didn’t receive an invitation to any international tournaments, or much interest from NHL teams. A successful stint in Sweden’s second-tier league, HockeyAllsvenskan, put him back on their radar, yet the Montreal Canadiens felt comfortable trading down to select the over-age defenceman, certain that he would await them in the third round.
After more impressive performances, a World Juniors appearance, and one-fifth of an SHL season, however, Norlinder has built quite a reputation. Now, every week it seems, he generates more and more intrigue and comparisons to some of the better Swedish defencemen.
Frölunda’s head coach, Roger Rönnberg, does nothing to quell the excitement:
“I am extremely happy that things are happening around Mattias,” the coach exclaimed. “He really plays to make his team win. He has the best defensive qualities of all the offensive defenders that I have coached in Frölunda. He has a great foundation. He is great playing away from the puck. He has so many dimensions to his play.”
This is high praise coming from a coach who has led NHLers such as Erik Gustafsson and John Klingberg. Although some of them, like Rasmus Dahlin, he probably sees in a different, two-way category.
The jump from HockeyAllsvenskan to the SHL can be daunting for young players. A lot of them endure reduced ice time until they adapt to the demands of the league. But even if Norlinder has seen his production dip a bit in his transition, Coach Rönnberg speaks highly of his young adept.
“I think his start to the season has been very good. I am very positive both in regard to his performance and how we can expect him to perform in the future. He has a mentality/character that we really like. He is a happy and positive guy who spreads a lot of happiness, but he also has a unique ability to switch the button on and off, which means that he competes very well.”
The prospect’s defensive progression over the past couple of seasons has permitted this seamless transition to SHL hockey. Not that his play away from the puck was really ever a weakness; even in Junior and in HockeyAllsvenskan, the defenceman could make more than his share of stops to complement his offensive plays. Now, he has become just as effective at shutting down opponents as he is at pushing the play up ice.
“It is my belief that the defence is a strength in Mattias’s playbook,” said Mr. Rönnberg. “His defensive foundation is strong: he can stop the play; he is good one-on-one; he is strong around the crease; he is also fast in his defensive reads and really, really strong in his game without the puck.”
Norlinder built up this strong defensive game by recycling some of the same skills that make him an offensive menace. In the opposing end, Frölunda strategically moves its defencemen as low as possible. When the puck slides below the goal line and the opposing team regroups itself around the cage, the blue-liners descend to the top of circle, enclosing the other team. They set themselves up for one-timers behind the backs of defenders, but also, if the puck changes hands, they hem in opponents should they attempt to break out.
As the enthusiastic offensive player that he is, Norlinder takes all of his opportunities to slide lower in the zone. By activating into space like this, he can lock on to attackers and spring himself into their path with an explosive crossover before they can escape into the neutral zone.
Rush defence will continue to be Norlinder’s bread and butter as he rises in level. Not only is he aggressive, stepping up on attackers at the first sign of instability to pinch them on the walls, but also calculated. He doesn’t just launch at opponents, but scans the ice to measure backchecking support, the number of opponents, and the positioning of the puck-carrier before closing his gap.
“[Norlinder] is extremely [quick] to figure out which player he is up against, something we call ‘check ID.’ You know which players is yours, and Mattias is very good at that,” said Kristofer Näslund, Frölunda’s defensive coach. “It is an extremely important quality for a defender. The players that are on the inside, he’s got them. Some players struggle with this, but not Mattias. He makes it look so easy. He turns his head a lot in order to get those clues. He has his eyes over the ice, not down on the ice or focusing on one player. The foundation is superb; the starting point for an offensive defender is really, really good.”
Defensive awareness has been an area of great improvement for Norlinder in the past few years. Before, he would focus his entire attention for long seconds on either the puck or his coverage and “drift out of the situation at times,” as Mr. Näslund explained. Although those lapses still occasionally happen — something the defensive coach acknowledged — the defenceman “worked really hard to change that,” now checking over his shoulder in more regular beats. He registers attackers driving behind him and knows better when he has to step away from his post to help teammates.
If he somehow misses an opponent, his mobility catches him. He swings his shoulders and hips around and takes off toward the attacker with his stick leading his movement to deny passing lanes and reestablish defensive positioning.
“He takes such a pride in his defensive game. There are some basic technical things that are great, that we have worked on, too,” said Mr. Näslund. “He has no big flaws that he needs to fix. He just needs to be more consistent.”
Looking ahead to Norlinder’s transition to the NHL, this consistency will be key. He needs to further improve his vision habits, both the rate of his shoulder-checks and the information he collects. The best defenders in the world don’t just locate threats, but register their size, speed, and handedness so that they know when and how to execute the perfect stick-lift.
Those blue-liners also dictate the play, something Norlinder only does on and off. The young SHLer shadows attackers well, but would better conserve energy by controlling their movements through precise angling techniques. By approaching them in arcs, with his stick extended (without overreaching), he could force opponents away from dangerous areas, lessen their threats, and limit this chasing.
That being said, contrary to many other offensive defenceman who need more defensively inclined partners to succeed at the NHL level, Norlinder’s strong base of defensive skills and his continued improvements in that facet of the game suggest that he won’t have to be cared for.
“I can’t see any limits to his game, especially not with the puck, but also he has taken big strides to become more stable,” said Mr. Näslund. “Soon, he will be consistent in all games, not only six, seven games in a row, but all games throughout the season. Over time he will be a rock defensively, a player you really want to have on the ice.”
When asked about the possibility of Norlinder acting as the defensive anchor on a pairing, however, Mr. Rönnberg didn’t mince his words. “He could definitely fulfil that role, but it would be madness to put him in that role [as you wouldn’t play him to his strengths].”
The coaching staff doesn’t see the defenceman’s wilder offensive nature as a weakness, but as a strength. They want to encourage and develop this style of play so that it leads Frölunda to offensive success, and the defenceman to a long NHL career.
“In order to have a player like Mattias succeed, you will have to let go of the brake; you want him to accelerate over the potholes rather than brake before you get to them,” said Mr. Näslund. “You will let him take those potholes at higher speed next time and let him make the mistakes that will happen as he tries new stuff in order to gain an advantage, rather that have him play [in a way] to avoid something negative happening.”
Offensively, Norlinder distinguishes himself the most in the way he receives pucks, something Jack Han, a former member of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ hockey operations department (and EOTP contributor), discussed earlier this season.
In the time it takes for the disc to move from a teammate’s stick to his own, Norlinder rapidly gathers information. He anticipates how the opposition will approach him, how to beat them, and where space will open. When the puck enters his range, he catches it in the starting position of his play of choice, and does so in a fluid and precise way, wasting barely any motion to maximize the speed of his execution.
Because of his high efficiency, Norlinder can create in situations where he barely has any space. He surprises forecheckers and defenders who pressure him head-on as he receives, thinking they have a good gap on him and the upper hand, when in reality they get left behind when the defenceman instantly shifts his weight one way as the puck touches his stick and then explodes in the other direction. Opponents have trouble reading his first touch, because he often corrals pucks in his hip pocket, with shoulders and hips squared to them, in a deceptive I-can-go-anywhere-from-here position.
Through his rapid and economic movements, the defenceman also speeds up the pace of the attack. On pass-receptions, he doesn’t aimlessly shuffle the puck, but deflects it ahead so that he can easily accelerate into it, or holds it on his forehand so that he can hit teammates before passing lanes close or the instant they open.
“He comes here with a very high hockey smartness. He has an amazing redirect capability, and I think it is very important that we let him use that when he plays; that we are not over-coaching him. He shouldn’t play following my whiteboard pen,” Mr. Rönnberg said. “I expect him to make split-second decisions, and he is encouraged to make them out there. That is the way he learns to make better and better decisions.”
On a risk-taking scale, Norlinder falls somewhere between the blue-liner who parks himself far from the play in a safety position and the one who charges into the action at every turn and lives on pure adrenaline. The defenceman will go all-in, but only when he senses a clear advantage, like open space or a speed difference. When those conditions are met, he takes off.
In transition, multiple times per game he darts around opponents to gain the opposing blue line. In the offensive zone, he carries the puck down the wall when forwards hand it to him, runs into the slot when defenders arrive late to pressure him up top, and attempts backdoor plays when they forget about him.
Norlinder’s risk gauge still needs fine-tuning. There are instances where he picks dangerous routes or sprints forward when he should act as the defensive anchor, but with time he should get better and better at recognizing the right opportunities to unleash his talents. The coaching staff is also committed to helping him regulate his play.
“There are situations that will happen where he absolutely shouldn’t have tried that deke, but it is important to realize and know that he doesn’t want to spoil anything for the team, for his teammates, or someone else,” Mr. Näslund continues. “He wants to add positively to the play. I believe you have to dare to play like the player you are. He is 20. He has a mindset of a winner. A player like that, you have to play him to win. Sometimes mistakes will happen, but the upside is so much bigger.”
The power play is one of the areas where Rönnberg specifically plans to work with his protégé. Frölunda’s first unit, which features two young players, Norlinder and 2020 fourth overall pick Lucas Raymond, hasn’t generated goals at the expected rate. The combined effectiveness of the team’s man advantage is 21.2%, one of the lowest in the league.
At the top of the zone, Norlinder has walked the blue line effectively and invited defenders to his area to open space for Raymond on the wing. He also scored from a one-timer at the top of the slot. That said, to replicate the pinpoint accuracy and timing of the success of the best power-play units, the duo will need more practice.
“Norlinder is learning on the job; he is being educated. He has the full foundation to become a very good power-play defenceman,” Mr. Rönnberg offers. “He is currently building his own game on the power play, and it will show up. He will get rewarded for that at the end of the season. [...] When the foundation is this strong, then you can work with his strengths rather than the weaknesses.”
In the interview with Frölunda’s coaching staff, two elements kept coming up: Norlinder’s large skill foundation and the need to reinforce it. Both Mr. Rönnberg and Mr. Näslund seem entirely committed to helping him solidify his game and rise to his potential. Mr Näslund, especially, discussed “mapping Norlinder’s habits” and breaking down his games to discover how to best push him.
“We will have discussions about defensive plays, more like every day than every other day [laughs]. You will have to respect the fact that it will take time.” Näslund pauses before going on. “It doesn’t make sense that you are there to poke him every time he gets it wrong. [Players] know when they got it wrong. Some days there will be a few too many mistakes and then you have to be there and put your foot down to say, ‘This isn’t okay.’
“There will come a time when he gets burned, and it will hurt, but we can’t just turn off the stove. We have to teach him how to approach it differently. It is one of the most important aspects as a coach: to not cage in a player. They have to be able to fly freely. We believe that, come playoff time, their highest level will be even higher than if you control them and say ‘you can’t do this,’ or ‘you can’t do that.’ I don’t think you create players that reach their peak potential [that way]. My job, and the way we coach in Frölunda, is to maximize the capital Mattias has.”
From the start in Frölunda, Norlinder has been given all the necessary opportunities to prove himself. Playing the fourth-most minutes at even strength and the first unit of the power play, he isn’t overly exposed and gets the necessary puck-touches and strong opposition to test both his offensive and defensive limits.
So far, according to the leaders behind the bench and the advanced stats, he has fared quite well. He controls shot attempts on the ice (58% Corsi-for percentage) and compares favourably to his teammates in that category (2.9% relative CF%). In time, this positive on-ice impact should translate to more production.
“Mattias has taken a step up in his level of play and he will take another with the National Team,” Mr. Näslund said. “He has such an exciting and natural way of playing hockey both with and without the puck. Almost all players have one or the other, but from my point of view, he really is one of those exceptional two-way defenders that brings a very high level of play in his defensive game, and he can be super fun in the offensive zone too.”
It might take another year for Norlinder to wear the bleu-blanc-rouge of the Canadiens, but if the team waits for him to mature and grow on both sides of the puck, as coach Rönnberg says, ‘‘they will reap the rewards come harvest.’’