Puck-moving defenceman? Check. With a clear offensive upside? Check? A Swede? Check. Somewhere there will always be comparisons with other skilled blue-liners from Sweden, be it Viktor Hedman, Erik Karlsson, or Rasmus Dahlin.
Mattias Norlinder is trying to build his own reputation among some of Sweden’s top defenders. It is a tough thing to do, and with the Capital of Hockey being a defender down, all eyes turned to Sweden and Norlinder as he signed with the Montreal Canadiens this spring.
Can he make that jump with his training camp performance? That is the main question in Montreal, and that is why he is ranked fourth in the Top 25 Under 25.
The expectations were high when Norlinder signed with Swedish powerhouse Frölunda HC last year. After a stellar pre-season, there was no holding back from all the experts in Sweden, who were ready to hand out the rookie of the year award before the season started. Injuries, a Frölunda team in disarray, and a certain Moritz Seider put a stop to those predictions.
Two injuries split Norlinder’s season in half: a shoulder injury from the Karjala Cup tournament, and a knee injury sustained when he fell awkwardly in the SHL and was forced to miss 15 games. When he came back he was paired with another offensive defenceman, and things didn’t work well. It wasn’t until Norlinder was paired with his old partner, Jens Olsson, in the playoffs that things started to look up again. With that duo restored, he was Frölunda’s best player in the quarter-final series against SHL finalist Rögle.
Norlinder’s votes are consolidated between 4 and 8, with the smallest range so far in the rankings (minus Arvid Henrikson cemented firmly at the bottom).
Top 25 Under 25 History
He has come a long way since his entry on the list at number 16 in 2019, after having been drafted a year past his first eligibility. He moved up to five last year, and stays as one of the top defence prospects in the Canadiens’ prospect pool.
History of #4
His skating, vision and accuracy with both passes and shots are top notch. He has just started to use his shot more in Frölunda. Last year, he was one of the main hubs on the power play, working as the lone defender in the setup. He was working with two extremely good passers when he left for Canadiens training camp, and that benefitted his game.
Something that stands out for Norlinder on the power play is the 9-and-3 position of his skates, with his toes pointed outward and heels pointing at each other; the ‘spread eagle’ in figure-skating terms. He uses this to great effect as it throws off the defending forwards on the penalty kill, especially as he manages to generate acceleration and speed out of that move. It creates passing lanes and space for his teammates and himself.
Last year, I hailed the defensive game as an improvement. This year, I am not so sure. No matter the improvement, it is still the clear weakness in his game. I spoke with his defensive coach who agrees that his gap control isn’t the best. He tends to try to poke the puck away, making him vulnerable as it leaves space for a skilled forward to work with. It’s something that he has been exposed by a couple of times in the SHL and Champions Hockey League action.
“His decisions aren’t wrong,” defensive coach Näslund explains about his struggles. “When the bad things happen, it is usually when he has to swap his coverage and cover a new opponent.” With a faster game in the NHL this could cause even larger problem, though a smaller rink does mean less east-west movement to figure out.
It seems that Norlinder has one mental lapse every game, and it could happen at any given time. How will a coach react to that, and how will Norlinder’s confidence react when that decision is inevitably to sit him for a period of time? In a recent conversation Norlinder said he deserved to be benched, but what if it happens with regularity?
As evidenced by his situation in the SHL last season, he needs a stay-at-home defender to be able to play his game to the fullest. If you pair him with another offensive-minded player things tend to go sideways quite quickly. While his hockey IQ and vision are great, it seems that his processor is somewhat slow on the defensive side of the puck.
Norlinder will be an NHL player. There is no doubt in that regard. The question for me is if he will be a power-play specialist or a more complete player. There are consistency issues that show that he shouldn’t get that chance right now; the NHL isn’t a development league, and these deficiencies need to be adressed.
In Frölunda, it has also been shown that he needs an experienced partner that is better on the defensive side of the puck. While I understand the interest in pairing him with another offensive-minded defender to create an almost five-forward puck-possession line, I don’t think that can work in the NHL. In order to maximize Norlinder’s best qualities, you will need to help him out in the defensive assignments.
It remains to be seen if he stays with Montreal and the NHL this year, or goes back to Sweden for another year with Frölunda,. There will be a Canadiens jersey ready for him when the time is right, but that may not be until next season.
The Top 25 Under 25 podcast with Matt Drake and Patrik Bexell:
Anton Rasegård and Patrik Bexell discuss Norlinder’s game
Roger Rönnberg on Norlinder during SHL playoffs: