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Unsung Hero: Real Key to Oilers Playoff Success Isn’t McDavid or Draisaitl

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl might be the stars of the Edmonton Oilers, but the key to playoff success is defenseman Mattias Ekholm.

In a season that has effectively turned around from one of the darker starts in recent memory, the Edmonton Oilers have found consistent success. Sitting second in the Pacific Division after a win over the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night, the Oilers didn’t have a perfect game but their “B game” was good enough. The one A player was the incredibly underappreciated force in defenseman Mattias Ekholm. He pushed the Oilers to a win and the team is relying on him to do the same in the playoffs.

Since his acquisition on February 28th, 2003, Ekholm has been a game-changer for the team, solidifying their defensive core and contributing significantly to their success on the ice. Ekholm has been so good, that one could fairly argue that he’s the key to ultimately unlocking the Oilers’ playoff success this season, not Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl.

Related: 3 Takeaways from Oilers’ 3-2 Overtime Victory Over Canadiens

No doubt, both McDavid and Draisaitl will need to lead the offensive charge. They are considered two of the game’s greatest active players and if they’re not going, the Oilers don’t stand a chance. But, if Ekholm isn’t doing Ekholm-like things, the Oilers aren’t going very far either. His presence is so impactful in so many ways that he directly impacts others, almost as much as anything he could do on the ice on his own.

Ekholm Has Been a Huge Addition to the Oilers

Easily Ken Holland‘s best trade as GM of the Edmonton Oilers, Ekholm’s impact on the Oilers’ performance cannot be overstated. With 85 games under his belt, he has not only showcased his defensive ability and steadied things on that end, but also contributed offensively. He’s tallied an impressive 44 points, including nine goals and 35 assists. He got two primary assists in Tuesday’s game against the Canadiens.

Ken Holland’s greatest trade as Oilers’ GM was the one that brought them Mattias Ekholm

What’s more, Ekholm boasts a staggering +60 plus/minus rating, leading the NHL since joining the Oilers.

Ekholm was the best Oiler of the night against Montreal and that game is not a one-off. He has propelled the team to a remarkable 58-22-5 record with Ekholm in the lineup. Despite the high cost of acquisition, Ekholm has proven to be worth every penny, emerging as the Oilers’ top defensive option and commanding top pairing minutes both at even strength and on the penalty kill.

Ekholm Will Unlock the Playoff Potential of Every Defenseman on the Roster

Ekholm’s impact extends beyond his on-ice performance. His presence has elevated the entire team, especially other defensemen on the roster. His partnership with Evan Bouchard has been instrumental in unlocking arguably the best offensive defenseman on the Oilers since Paul Coffey. Together, they form one of the league’s most formidable blue-line pairs, with Ekholm’s veteran experience complementing Bouchard’s dynamic gifts. When not with him, Bouchard has struggled to make the smart play. With Ekholm, there’s little Bouchard can’t do. The young blueliner is confident, poised, and ready to move on from mistakes.

Evan Bouchard has been incredible since paired with Mattias Ekholm

Ekholm’s influence also extends to his fellow defensemen, notably Darnell Nurse and Vincent Desharnais. While Nurse has faced scrutiny over his cap hit, Ekholm’s arrival has allowed Nurse to thrive in a role that better suits his skill set. Nurse has unequivocally taken a step forward this season. He’s playing a sound game and part of that is because he’s not being overused in every situation.

Additionally, Vincent Desharnais has come into his own this season, partially under Ekholm’s mentorship. While the two aren’t playing on the same pairing, there’s no way Desharnais takes the giant leaps he’s taking without a veteran like Ekholm departing wisdom throughout the season. Specifically, Desharnais has grown into a key penalty killer, earning the trust of his teammates and coaches.

Ekholm Pushes the Oilers to Stanely Cup Contenders

Overall, Ekholm’s impact on the Edmonton Oilers has been nothing short of transformative. He’s the key to the blue line being capable of shutting down the top offenses in the NHL during a playoff run and his leadership and veteran savvy bring more to the table than most will ever give him credit for.

The Ekholm trade will go down as the wisest decision Holland ever made and his impact on this team will last far beyond his time on the ice with the roster.

Next: Analyst Points Out Oilers’ Biggest Playoff Issue on Their Blue Line

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