The meteoric rise of Mattias Norlinder started last season when former NHLer Tobias Enström said that “he will be an NHLer for sure” while nodding toward the over-age draft choice. Since then, Norlinder has been awarded the ‘Guldgallret’ as the best Junior player in HockeyAllsvenskan, and taken a step up in the Swedish hockey order when he joined Champions Hockey League winners and the last SHL champions (2019), Frölunda HC.
The transition to Frölunda has come with a bit of everything, Norlinder has strengthened his core, which in turn has helped his balance. This means that he is better along the boards and in front of the net. Even if the points have been sparse, Norlinder has taken a lot of pride in his defensive game at the next level, something that resulted in a call-up to the national team for the Karjala Cup tournament in Finland.
He brings a lot to the table. While the media focus has been on his dangles, his goals, and his offence, he has shown another level since he arrived to the west coast of Sweden: his defence. While he is fourth in ice time in Frölunda among the defenders, he has played well in his own end; a stable presence who has managed to showcase that area of the game. It is rare that a young defender goes from the second league in Sweden into a top-four role with the champions.
This should bode well for the future with the Montreal Canadiens. Even though fans dream of the next Erik Karlsson, Norlinder seems to be more of a Jeff Petry, with higher offensive skill. Norlinder will need another year in Frölunda, but he should be able to transition into the NHL with ease after that.
A few of the staff as well as the community ranked Norlinder a few spots lower than he ended up. His average ranking is well above the player below him, with almost the same margin to the player just above him. It’s fair to say he sits solidly in the five spot on this year’s list.
Top 25 Under 25 History
Despite being an over-age player selected in the third round in 2019, Norlinder made his debut well within the Top 25 last year. It turns out even that position was too conservative, as he makes the biggest year-over-year leap in 2020.
History of #5
Last year, we wrote about Norlinder’s play in the defensive zone as a weakness. This year, with an extremely productive off-season, we have to identify it as a strength. He will never be an Alexander Romanov or Shea Weaber in his own end, but one has to trust Frölunda head coach Roger Rönnberg when he says Norlinder “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 in his play.”
For being such an offensive talent, he has a lot of skill on the defensive side of the puck as well. “It is my belief that the defence is a strength in Mattias’s playbook,” Mr. Rönnberg continued. “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 he is really, really strong in his game without the puck.”
Offence is still where he should shine. He can quarterback the power play, and will join the rush or advance the play with his puck-moving abilities. His zone entries are very good. Much of this is down to his skating, where especially the edgework benefits him in all areas of the game. Added to that is his acceleration, combined with a top speed, that often sees sees him leading the rush rather than playing the role of third man.
The transition from Sweden’s second tier to the top tier hasn’t been as smooth as everyone had hoped. The points have dried up at the start of the season, and he almost seems over-eager at times. Frölunda’s defensive coach, Kristofer Näslund, covers that area in the podcast below.
He can still watch the puck at times while he’s playing defence, but he is less impetuous and covers the gap better. Having amended that, there are not many holes left in that part of his play.
Across the board thing, the biggest thing he needs to address is his inconsistency; make it right every time, especially on a ‘cold rainy January night in Skellefteå.’
Norlinder could have picked any team he wanted in the SHL, and it was an opposing team that let it be known that he was going to Frölunda as they were upset with him not choosing their club. It is the right move, even if the transition has been tough, especially offensively. Frölunda is a known developer of talent, and he has his sights set on the NHL. He signed a two-year contract with the European champions in order to develop into that player he wants to become.
His developing defensive acumen means that he won’t need to be sheltered at the highest level. He will be able to succeed with any partner, and that pairing should be able to cary a team offensively as well as defensively. His skating is his biggest strength, perhaps just edging his hockey IQ, and this combination should make him a top-four defenceman in the NHL in the near future.
While some still wonder about an over-age player with few points in a defensive-minded league, Mr. Rönnberg is full of confidence.
“It is an awfully good player that awaits the Montreal Canadiens in the future.”
Habsent Minded: Top 25 Under 25, Number 5 - Mattias Norlinder, with Frölunda defensive coach Kristofer Näslund