The Philadelphia Flyers and Mattias Ekholm are a tremendous match, but trading for him is more complicated than it seems.
In the offseason, Matt Niskanen retired from professional hockey. The Philadelphia Flyers are nearly twenty games into the regular season, and they have yet to address his departure. After his retirement, the importance of his role has grown more evident each game. Defensively, the Flyers are crumbling against formidable opponents. Some could say Philadelphia has fallen from a contender to a pretender.
Chuck Fletcher extended Justin Braun and signed Erik Gustafsson almost immediately after Niskanen retired. Braun performed well on the third-pair in 2019-2020, so his extension wasn’t too crazy. Gustafsson, an offensive defenseman, could pick up the powerplay duties Niskanen owned but lacked defensive instinct. Shayne Gostisbehere, a better defensive defenseman than Gustafsson, received a lot of criticism in 2019-2020. Spending $3mil on a lite-version of Gostisbehere was not ideal when there were Niskanen-sized shoes to fill.
Defensively, the Flyers core would consist of Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, and Philippe Myers. Three of those four players make up the top-four defensemen. Niskanen became the missing piece upon his retirement announcement. In 2019-2020, Provorov could use Niskanen as a backbone to balance his game on. Without Niskanen, Provorov had to prove if he could become a franchise defenseman or a top-pair complimentary piece.
Myers received a long-awaited extension during the offseason. Most thought he could be a candidate to join Provorov on the top-pair. During training camp, Alain Vigneault decided to place Provorov with Gostisbehere. The pairing worked while Niskanen served a suspension during the 2020 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Instead, Myers returned to a familiar partner in Sanheim.
Thus far, Philadelphia lacks consistency in their defensive lineup. Injuries and COVID protocol played a hand during some games, but that doesn’t own all the blame. A mix-match of personnel on the third-pair doesn’t provide a consistent defense. On special teams, the penalty kill has been abysmal. A multitude of defensive mishaps on a nightly basis doesn’t make things simple for Carter Hart, who is having a down year compared to 2019-2020.
A Grand ‘Ole Solution
On March 1st, 2021, Frank Seravalli of TSN reported Mattias Ekholm atop his trade bait list. The 30-year-old left defenseman from the Nashville Predators has been the hot topic of many trade conversations, including the Flyers. Ekholm is a second-pair defenseman on the Predators. He can play on the top-pair of any NHL team. Adding Ekholm to the left side of Philadelphia’s defense is the closest Fletcher could get to replacing Niskanen (another option would be Vince Dunn).
Ekholm has spent his career in Nashville. The franchise is ready for a serious overhaul, which the Flyers should take advantage. That makes the Predators a perfect trade partner for Philadelphia. A retooling or rebuilding franchise is going to want prospects packaged in trades. The Flyers can make that work without sacrificing a lot of talent for what they want.
Securing a brilliant top-four defenseman could help Philadelphia stay a contender for a better part of the next five years. Something to consider is the style of play Ekholm could bring to the Flyers lineup. His defensive prowess, in my opinion, outclasses Provorov. Think, for a second, how potent the top-four defensemen could be. Winning hockey begins with the defense in front of the goaltending, which would ease the stress on Hart’s career.
Unlike Provorov, Ekholm controls his turnovers. He seemingly turned a corner in 2019-2020, becoming a better defenseman than in his former seasons. Transition hockey and neutral zone follies have been a weakness for Philadelphia in 2020-2021. Too many times do opponents recover the puck and create an odd-man rush scoring opportunity. Ekholm helps correct that while possessing the skills to create offense on special teams.
What Is The Price?
Of all the rumor-mill trade bait players, Ekholm is the only one worth shopping. Formerly, Flyers fans frenzied for Patrick Laine or Pierre Luc-DuBois. The real team need always resided in the defensive unit in 2020-2021. Besides, Jack Roslovic was the steal in a blockbuster trade between Laine and Luc-DuBois. It would have been a shame to make a rash decision there.
Shipping a prospect, a high pick, and an NHL-level defenseman for Ekholm is a price worth paying. Philadelphia could tempt Nashville with a winger, a right defenseman, and a first-round pick. If both players are NHL ready, then perhaps a second-round selection. For that, there are two schools of thought to consider:
Potential Flyers’ Packages
First, let’s talk about a package featuring a prospect, an NHL defenseman, and a first-round draft pick. Morgan Frost is likely the only prospect of interest for the Predators. Now, the Flyers have to ante up an NHL-level defenseman. Gustafsson and Gostisbehere don’t get the blood pumping in Nashville, so we’re likely discussing Myers or Sanheim. Add a first-round pick in 2021 or 2022, and there may be a deal.
Secondly, Fletcher could have a hard giving away this trade package. The Predators need help on the wing, so including Nolan Patrick, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, or Jakub Voracek would be valuable. If Fletcher could work his magic by selling Gustafsson, that would be marvelous, but I would expect Myers or Sanheim. After including two NHL-caliber players, the draft pick should shrink to a second or third-round pick. Here, Nashville would receive quality assets to help with a quick rebuild.
Flyers’ Expansion Draft Forecast
Heading into the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, Philadelphia may have to accept losing a current core defenseman if they trade for Ekholm. In making a trade with the Predators for Ekholm, the end game should be protecting him. That means Myers or Sanheim would likely be exposed. This play to protect Ekholm from the Seattle Kraken is why Fletcher should be okay with trading either Myers or Sanheim in a package for Ekholm.
I recognize the promise that Sanheim and Myers exhibit. Both defensemen are under 25-years-old. Assuming the role of Fletcher, you’re gambling on the potential of these players. Does the ceiling of Myers or Sanheim match Ekholm? The unbiased answer is unlikely.
Vigneault benched Myers after the recent win versus the New York Rangers. A year ago, Myers bloomed under Vigneault. The former undrafted defenseman has yet to realize his maximum potential. With that said, Ekholm can do things that Sanheim cannot. The Flyers will protect Provorov and Ekholm if a trade is made for him, leaving Myers or Sanheim exposed.
There is only one way that Fletcher retains Provorov, Sanheim, Myers, and Ekholm after the 2021 Expansion Draft. He would have to make a deal with Ron Francis to leave Ekholm alone. In doing so, Francis would leverage a player as valuable as Ekholm. After Philadephia protects their forwards, there aren’t many players available better than Ekholm. Seattle doesn’t gain much by agreeing to a deal.
The Flyers have more to lose if they value Ekholm as a lease. Constructing a trade to include a young NHL forward or a forward prospect with either Myers or Sanheim to employ Ekholm for potentially less than thirty games loses its meaning. For this concept to have value, Philadelphia cannot be shortsighted.
What is the risk of waiting until after the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft to make a move for Ekholm? Patrick is a restricted free agent, so is Sanheim, and Gustafsson is no longer on the books. Already, the Flyers have cap space to afford Ekholm outright with a year left on his current deal. The big negotiation is Hart, who is a restricted free agent. Ekholm could be just as available as he is now, but with a new season ahead in 2021-2022.
After all, Philadelphia could be smart in playing a patient pursuit of Ekholm. Abbreviated seasons and the league expansion make objects in the mirror more complicated than they appear.
Photo Credit: Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire