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Mattias Norlinder’s strong start to camp is years in the making

Credit: Arianne Bergeron - Arena du Rocket Inc.

Perhaps no player at camp can personify the ups and downs of a rebuild and prospect development than Montreal Canadiens defenceman Mattias Norlinder.

Norlinder didn’t pay attention to the hype prior to coming over, where highlights flooded the Canadiens official account and many others, and there was a high level of buy in – “I’m not into Twitter and all that stuff,” he said – but he has seen the opposite side of that as well in recent years when that hype hasn’t been fulfilled. Just look at the roller coaster he’s been on in the Top 25 Under 25.

The 23-year-old Swede has seemingly been around for years, but it’s easy to forget that he has only played 81 games between the AHL and NHL over the last two seasons. He’s far from the only European defender to show up on highlights and have that part of his game fade when playing on North American ice. Development, of course, is also not linear. Players don’t always show steady improvement year over year.

Norlinder has shown short flashes of the player who would bring offence, but watching old clips from the SHL and Allsvenskan make him seem like a different player. In some ways, it’s because he was. It didn’t help that the team essentially held him with the NHL team through an injury, then forced him into his NHL and AHL debuts with hardly any training camp and while building his conditioning back up from the injury. (If you want, just contrast that with how the Canadiens, under different management, handled Emil Heineman’s similar situation last year, allowing him to rehab and get back to playing in Sweden.)

That isn’t to say Norlinder isn’t to blame, but it’s easy to see how getting thrown into the fire can take a player known for flash and offence into a player fighting for survival.

“It takes time,” said Canadiens assistant coach St├ęphane Robidas. “There’s a risk and reward and it depends where you play in the lineup. If you get those top minutes, your leash is a little longer but to come in as a 5th or 6th or 7th D, you have to make sure the coach can trust you whenever they put you on the ice. Sometimes if you don’t play those power play minutes and you don’t get put in those situations offensively, you need to take care of your own end. A lot of the time that’s where young [defenders], it takes time. It’s not an easy position, you get exposed a lot more than as a forward and that’s why I feel it takes longer for a defenceman to make it to the NHL.”

Of the 81 games Norlinder has played in North America, 69 came last season (between regular season and playoffs) with the Laval Rocket. You could see improvement as the year went on. His two goals and 10 of his 17 assists were in the 30 final regular season games.

“Last year, I played 69 games instead of two years before that dealing with injuries and I think that was huge in my development,” Norlinder said. He also knows what he learned.

“Overall, how I can use my speed on the ice,” he said. “I feel like last year, I was stuck in my own zone all the time. I didn’t know when to join the rushes and all that […] I have way more confidence this year with the puck, following up the ice, shooting, trying to do some stuff, not just rim it and try to flip it out all the time.”

Norlinder has been passed on the left side of the Canadiens depth chart by several newcomers, and is likely slated to start this season in Laval once again. As he prepares for his pre-season debut, however, he can start to show what he has shown in the scrimmages: A player with more confidence and entering his second full season in North America.

The players will ultimately decide where they end up, and Norlinder will look to build on his solid start.