2019 Montreal Canadiens Top 25 Under 25: #16 Mattias Norlinder
The defenceman may have been selected in the third round, but there’s plenty of NHL potential in the smooth-skating Swede.
Mattias Norlinder had been rising slowly in the rankings and mocks leading up to the 2019 NHL Draft. Corey Pronman, and Bob McKenzie’s surveyed scouts, were high on the defender, ranking him in the early to mid 50s, even if he was an over-ager.
Norlinder is the offensively gifted modern Swedish defender who can move the puck and his feet at an explosive rate. When he was available in the early third round, Trevor Timmins didn’t hesitate at all as the Montreal Canadiens chose Norlinder with the 64th pick. The defenceman had a broken scaphoid bone at the time of the draft, and it might have caused him to drop a few places in an event where puck-moving defenders were in high demand.
Birthplace: Kramfors, Sweden
Date of birth: April 12, 2000
Drafted: 2019 (64th overall)
Weight: 181 lbs.
Team: Modo (Allsvenskan)
The defender started the season with Modo’s U20 team, but the head coach of the main club, Björn Hellkvist, says it was to bring Norlinder up at the right moment rather than rush the young prospect up. To solidify the transition to Sweden’s second division, HockeyAllsvenskan, Mr. Hellkvist chose to partner Norlinder with NHL veteran Tobias Enström, something that seemed to have benefited Enström even more than Norlinder.
The young blue-liner played almost 20 minutes a game (19:38) in the 19 games he played with the senior team. He finished the season with nine points (3G, 6A), before returning to the U20 team and leading the junior Modo squad to the gold medal, earning the playoff MVP honours for himself.
After the season there was some interest from a few SHL clubs, but Norlinder chose to stay in Modo, doubtless because he will be relied upon in all situations and earn more ice time than he would on an SHL team where he might have been placed in a bottom-pairing role.
The voting has Norlinder safely in the Top 25, with only one voter having him outside of the main list. The community had Norlinder lower than the average staff member.
Matt: I really like his skating, and to be honest I’d have ranked him much higher if basing solely on that aspect. Perhaps I simply need to see more of him, but I think his defensive game needs a lot of work before he could play in the NHL. If he can show some of that development this year, I’ll have to eat crow and move him way up on my list next year. As I always say, I love to be proven wrong by Habs prospects!
Justin: Leading up to the draft, the writers at EOTP picked Thomas Harley as our mock selection at 15th overall, liking the offensive game he would bring to the organization if he were selected. Norlinder may not be quite up to Harley’s level, but the style of play is quite similar, using speed, mobility, and offensive skill to make a big impact for his team. They both show the potential to be power-play quarterbacks in the NHL and lead the transition game at even strength.
In my opinion, offence is the hard part for defencemen. If a player is committed to it, moulding him into an effective defensive player is just a matter of time and effort. At the end of the day, creating more goals than you allow is the objective of the game. For all the talk of Norlinder needing to get better defensively, he’s consistently achieved that from year to year, league to league, so I’m interested to see how effective he will be when his game becomes fully complete.
History of #16
First and foremost, Norlinder’s skating stands out. His acceleration is high and so is his top speed, while his lateral movement is excellent.
Added to the skating are his vision and decision-making at high speed, Norlinder can deke or deliver a pass to a forward in transition. Defenders have a hard time doing their jobs correctly when Norlinder has so many options that he can execute in a flash.
He can transport the puck up the ice and use his vision to spring open forwards with great passes. His mobility allows him to work the blue line with ease on offence, and lets him push opposing attackers out toward the boards by matching their pace. The edgework also stands out with abrupt changes of direction when he feels the forechecking pressure on him.
It is on the defensive side of the puck that Norlinder has the biggest room for improvement. He needs to engage players better in his own end. While his skating is great and his top speed is excellent, he needs to approach attackers with more caution in order to not get beaten by making an overaggressive play on the puck. He is impetuous and needs to learn to control his nature to play more efficiently.
There are two things that stand out in the offensive zone too, but maybe not as major as his defensive play. While being on the blue line, he needs to be more dynamic and help to sell a play. He could also help out his line to draw a defender out of position in order to create space deeper in the offensive zone for his linemates.
His shot has accuracy and power, but his own confidence in it is weak. It also seems like Norlinder would rather play the pass than to shoot himself, and this will need to change to round out his offensive game.
Some of this might be down to the 2018-19 season being his first year among the pros. He may have adopted more of a safety-first approach where he would rather pass the puck to an open player, but with a worse angle, rather than take the shot himself and cause a turnover through a blocked shot.
A puck-moving defender like Norlinder is sure to reach the NHL in one way or another. Most teams will give such a player an extended look when the time arrives, and it is up to him to make the most of such an opening.
Even if he was an over-age player when he was drafted, his outlook for an NHL career is solid. He can move the puck with speed and deliver passes with precision. He has some flaws to work on in order to further his development, but those should be improved in HockeyAllsvenskan this year. Also, with Tobias Enström having signed on with Modo for another year, Norlinder has a great mentor to learn from in what it means to be a true professional.
Coach Hellkvist is bullish, but stresses that he is not accustomed to speaking about young players in this fashion.
”I should be cautious, but I won’t be. I think he will be an NHL player. He has the whole package and I can’t see him failing with that goal. He will need a full season of pro hockey, he might need another year, but to be fair I think he can be ready to take the step over [to North America] already [for the 2020-21 season]. He is that good.”