Is Mattias Ekholm the answer the Flyers defense has been looking for?

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - JANUARY 30: Mattias Ekholm #14 of the Nashville Predators skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on January 30, 2020 in Newark, New Jersey. The Predators defeated the Devils 6-5 in the shoot-out. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - JANUARY 30: Mattias Ekholm #14 of the Nashville Predators skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on January 30, 2020 in Newark, New Jersey. The Predators defeated the Devils 6-5 in the shoot-out. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

It’s no secret that with the loss of former Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen, the entire defensive unit has felt out of sorts. To make matters worse, GM Chuck Fletcher was unable to fill the void that Niskanen left, either through free agency or trade. It wasn’t for lack of trying though.

According to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, the word from other teams was that Chuck Fletcher tried his best to address the hole, but it’s not like top 4 defensemen fall from trees. There were simply no deals to make at the time. The Flyers were then left with Erik Gustafsson. He was not a replacement for Niskanen, but an NHL caliber defenseman with a scoring touch, and a prayer that during the season there would be a better opportunity to strike a deal.

That time seems to be now, as the Nashville Predators seem to be spiraling downward with a 7-10 record, good enough for 28th in the league. There seems to be a need to rebuild the organization as well. There is a name out there that was mentioned in the Pierre LeBrun article. It even mentions the Flyers as a possible fit.

And this is Mattias Ekholm– a long time top 4 defenseman for the Predators that has played with the likes of PK Subban, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis. So what can Ekholm bring to the Flyers that can make him a fit for a defensive unit in need of a boost?  Well, he might not be the most perfect fit like Niskanen was, but he brings a lot of qualities that the former player had. Let’s start to unpack this situation.

Defensive fit and play style

Now what did I mean when I said that Ekholm wasn’t as perfect of a fit as Niskanen?  Let’s talk about handedness. What made Niskanen so attractive was that he was a right shot that played the right side. He gave the Flyers the ability to roll two very balanced defensive pairings that were left and right handed.

Unfortunately, Ekholm is left handed and plays the left side for the Predators, so he would not bring that handedness balance that we saw last year. And it would most likely be an adjustment to play on his off-side next to someone like Provorov who plays exclusively on the left side. It’s a concern, but I don’t believe it would be so detrimental that it would cause enough pause to acquire him.

So if he isn’t the absolute perfect fit, then what exactly does he bring? Well, to be exact, other than that one issue, he brings a lot of what the Flyers lost with the departure of Niskanen. And that was a strong defensive two-way game along with the ability stabilize the defense. Ekholm, much like Niskanen, is an “all situations” type of player.

He can play on the power play and penalty kill. He will never be viewed as an offensively gifted player, but he does have the ability to put up points. He was able to produce 44 and 33 points in back to back seasons. The Flyers, though, wouldn’t really be looking for more offense. They would be looking more at his two-way play as a means of stabilizing the much maligned defense.

Another aspect of his game that he brings?  Physicality and some meanness. Ekholm is not one to shy away from the physical aspect of the game, and brings what I feel is a much needed mean streak to the Flyers.  It’s been frustrating to watch as the team has been out muscled, or their top players take some borderline dirty hits.

For those fans that scream from the rooftops that the Flyers need to play tougher, Ekholm can certainly bring that.  In this way Ekholm, unlike other names that have been linked to the Flyers earlier this season, would make the most sense stylistically to fill the Niskanen-sized hole on defense.

Cost to acquire and the risk that follows

So we know what Ekholm can bring to the team, but what exactly would it take to acquire the top 4 defenseman? The answer is unsurprising, but like with all trade scenarios, it also comes with some risk.  According to Pierre Lebrun it would look something likes this:

"Ekholm is very much the kind of asset Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez were when the rebuilding Kings dealt them away: veteran blueliners with a year and a half left on their deals at the time of their departures.Muzzin fetched a first-round pick and a prospect, while Martinez netted two second-round picks. Ekholm would probably net at least the Muzzin return. In fact, they are comparable players, as one team executive said to me Thursday, “both big, two-way defensemen. Top-four.”There must be a first-round pick in any Ekholm package or else there’s no way, in my mind, the Preds move him. I don’t believe the Predators have talked to teams yet about him; it’s still early, and again, maybe they won’t at all."

Can the Flyers match the compensation that the Maple Leafs and the Golden Knights used to acquire Muzzin and Martinez respectfully? Absolutely they could, and they could do so easily. But here is the potential major issue: the expansion draft.

The Flyers could give up a 1st rounder and some prospects for basically one season of Ekholm, and then lose him to the Seattle Kraken. That is why there is some risk involved in dealing for him. Now, that being said, should the Flyers do it anyway? That is dependent on your view of the team.

They appear to very much be in a “win now” mode, and there is an opportunity to fix their biggest issue. If you have the ability to make your team better, you do it, prospects and picks be damned.