31 Thoughts: Could Nashville move Ryan Ellis instead of Mattias Ekholm?

Nashville Predators defenceman Ryan Ellis. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

• Which blueliner will Predators deal?
• Much riding on Montreal’s testing results
• Leafs ready to strike

It is David Poile’s world, and the rest of us are renting property.

Nashville returned home Sunday after a strong 4-3-1 road trip through Dallas, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida. Now the longtime GM gets serious. He knows the marketplace, who wants what, and what he can do. Potential trade partners need to know if they’re a match, or if it’s time to find another date for the prom.

Biggest question Poile must answer: Mattias Ekholm or Ryan Ellis? Initially, the latter was off limits, but something’s made the Predators think. Both are highly regarded defenders. There are a lot of players with Ellis’s term (six years remaining at a $6.25-million AAV) who couldn’t get moved now, but I could see him being an exception. The cost to get either is high, and there might be added comfort in knowing, if you’re going to do that, Ellis is locked in longer. (Ekholm is up after next season.)

One team indicated they thought Ekholm’s value might actually be higher after the expansion draft, when you know what you’ve lost and you’ll be able to discuss an extension with him. That question might be moot if Ellis goes elsewhere.

This is purely my opinion, but Ellis screams Philadelphia. Predators head coach John Hynes revealed the blueliner recently had surgery, so he’s not solving anyone’s short-term problems. That fits for the Flyers, since he can still be an impactful player for years. The way they’ve played, they’re not moving major pieces to save the spring of 2021. But Ellis could replace a valuable loss — Matt Niskanen — for the long term.

An Ellis/Ivan Provorov partnership? Does anyone else think Philadelphia might leap at that?

Other Nashville decisions: Mikael Granlund. And I’m curious about Calle Jarnkrok, who has one more season at $2 million. He picked a good time to be the NHL’s First Star of the Week.

I’m not sure how much movement there’s going to be, but I do think Nashville’s at the forefront of it.


1. Feels like there’s a lot riding on Montreal’s COVID-19 testing results. Monday’s game against Edmonton became the first Canadian Division postponement of the season. Numbers are rising across the country, and vaccine rollout is aggravatingly slow — it’s a bit of a miracle every game was played, until now.

Seeing one player added to the list (Joel Armia) then another (Jesperi Kotkaniemi) is unusual, although it could be as simple as a positive test and a contact-tracing issue as opposed to two positive tests. Whatever the case, there wasn’t enough time to get all the necessary testing/tracing done to play the game. Now we wait for a true picture of what’s happening. Hopefully, we get the best possible outcome for the health of everyone involved.

2. This comes as the NHL figures out what to do with the Canadian team that advances to the Stanley Cup semifinal. Ideally, that team gets to play at home, but if the border remains closed, that’s un-good. Several options are being considered. The obvious is to put the winner in its closest American market, but a good point was raised — what if the semifinal matchup is, say, Toronto versus Vegas? Does it make sense to put the Maple Leafs in Buffalo, therefore creating longer travel?

It’s possible the Canadian winner is moved close to its opponent, or a central location like Chicago. But there’s still time to figure it out.

3. I could see Philadelphia considering someone like Marc Staal if not going the Ellis route.

4. Toronto’s ready to strike. Wayne Simmonds’s return forced some roster machinations, but GM Kyle Dubas’s waiver activity is also about creating cap room. He knows how much he needs, and he’s making sure he’s got it. There were some Jonathan Quick rumours over the weekend. I don’t see it, even though I concede some circumstantial evidence: Quick’s fiery, competitive nature is the temperament Toronto likes; he’s tight with Jack Campbell; and the Leafs and Kings do deals together. However, he’s battled injuries, and, does it really make sense to put that 35-year-old body through a quarantine, then ramp him up in three weeks for critical games? Not to me, it doesn’t.

I do think Toronto’s checked around on goalies (Arizona makes sense), but, again, you have to know you can make a sensible trade, and that you’re getting a better option than what you have and a consistently healthier one. That’s not a long list.

5. Vancouver grinded out an impressive road trip, then returned home for a 4–0 loss to Winnipeg that featured the painful image of an injured Bo Horvat trying to get off the ice. Head coach Travis Green had no post-game update on either Horvat or Brandon Sutter (who didn’t play), which is never a good sign.

Last Saturday in Montreal, the Canucks’ forwards entered the game with a combined 69 goals (nice). Horvat and Brock Boeser had scored 28 of them. Take out Jimmy Vesey’s five for Toronto, and that’s 36 from the nine others. They competed hard and scored four times, but lost in a shootout.

The math is not good for the Canucks, but they want to compete for as long as they can before a possible deadline sell-off. They’ve taken calls on their unrestricted defenders: Jordie Benn (five-team no-trade), Alexander Edler (no-move clause) and Travis Hamonic (no-move clause). There’s also Tanner Pearson (injured) and Sutter (we’ll see), along with continuing discussions about Jake Virtanen. A lot of moving pieces. The Canucks wanted to see where their surge took them, but aren’t ruling out anything.

6. I’m not sure how Edler feels about things, but I do think there’s some action on Benn and at least one eastern American team asking on Hamonic (who, for family reasons, prefers western Canada). From a purely speculative standpoint, does a Jake DeBrusk/Jake Virtanen deal work at all (with whatever else gets put in there)?

I don’t sense much movement at all in the Pearson contract talks. Lousy situation for the winger, who had to wait to return home with the team before visiting a specialist and starting rehab. If he takes an immediate trip back to Vancouver on a public flight, he’s got to quarantine. Awful timing for that injury.

7. The good news for the Canucks: J.T. Miller is back to being himself. At his best, he’s an enormous pain in the butt for opponents, regardless of production. He’s definitely driven people crazy lately.

8. There aren’t a lot of GMs buying what Marc Bergevin is selling about staying out of any trade-deadline frenzy. He’s not really wired that way, and they believe he’s made a push for Ekholm. We’ll see.

9. Big decision for Columbus on David Savard. They’ve temporarily defeated math and are back in the race. Things can always change, but the odds are not on him being a Blue Jacket next season, so what do they do? Do they hold and compete for the playoffs or move him for a return? That choice affects the rest of the market, potentially strengthening Nashville’s position with its available defencemen.

Do not underestimate how much value there is in making/competing for the playoffs. That will resonate with owners. How much better is Columbus’s (or anyone’s) post-pandemic financial future if they get in?

10. On Nick Foligno: I’m not sure trading him is something the Blue Jackets want to do, even if he’s not extended by the deadline. A lot of emotion there.

11. A name that surprised me: Conor Garland. I don’t think there’s much Arizona wouldn’t consider, but this one is very intriguing. He’s finishing his current contract at $775,000, is nearly a point-per-game player, and is tied for 24th in the NHL in even-strength points. I’m told the way the Coyotes see it is they need to replenish, and moving him could do it. He’s also arbitration-eligible this summer and next, followed by unrestricted free agency, so a much-deserved raise is on the way.

One thing Arizona has told teams: It’s not interested in multiple picks that are late in rounds. So you’ve got to bring more than that. Obvious onlooker: Boston. The Bruins need to score, and he’s a onetime junior Bruin. That makes them contractually obligated to trade for him.

12. Lou Lamoriello stealth watch: Dustin Brown. You know the Islanders GM wants to find someone no one has thought of. He’s a righty (injured captain Anders Lee is a lefty), but there are a lot of similarities. Goes to the front of the net, power-play threat. Holes in my theory: The Kings are playing meaningful games, and would they even want to move him? (Brown is originally from New York, although he’s incredibly attached to California.)

13. Alex Nedeljkovic has caught fire for Carolina: 7-2-2, with a 1.96 GAA and a .930 save percentage. The Hurricanes have 25 games left, and he needs to play nine of them (for at least 30 minutes) or he’s an unrestricted free agent. I can see a re-sign preventing that, but it’s an interesting subplot.

14. Watching Ian Cole fit nicely into Minnesota makes me think the Wild will try to extend him. That’s not going to be easy; they’ve got some big deals coming up. But I can see them making an attempt.

15. Don’t think Colorado is done adding. Erik Johnson’s health (get well soon) affects their choices, too.

16. Connor McDavid leads teammate Leon Draisaitl by seven assists and has now tied Auston Matthews for number one in goals. The last player to outright lead the NHL in both goals and assists was Wayne Gretzky (62-121 in 1986–87). Gretzky actually did it five times in six seasons. Mario Lemieux came agonizingly close twice. He led in goals in 1988–89 (85) and 1995–96 (69), but was tied both times in assists (Gretzky 114 the first time, Ron Francis 92 the second). Prior to Gretzky, the last to do it was Phil Esposito in 1972–73 (55-75).

17. Sometimes you’re told a story. You really hope it’s accurate, but you’re so convinced it’s too good to be true — you’re afraid to ask. So: Aleksander Barkov, is it correct that, in an effort to get to know each other a little better, you and Joel Quenneville went head to head on the tennis court?

“Yes,” he answered. “We both love tennis. I’ve been playing since I was four.”

All right. Is it also true that to make things more equitable, Quenneville (who is 62) was allowed to play the “doubles” lines while Barkov (25) had to play the “singles” lines?

“You should ask him,” Barkov laughed. “That’s a lot to tell.”

Then he continued.

“(Quenneville) is actually really good. I wasn’t expecting that from him.”

Who won?

“It was close. He’s smart. Knows how to win matches.”

But, I got the impression, not these ones.

18. We had a very interesting conversation about mindset.

“I’m a quiet guy,” the Panthers’ captain said. “I want to do well for the team. And I want to know what people want me to do better.”

Florida was enormously disappointed with its Summer 2020 performance, a limp 3–1 defeat to the Islanders. Challenged by his head coach to make more of a difference, Barkov changed his mental approach.

“Before, I would think, ‘I need to play well.’ Now, I think, ‘I need to win.’ It’s a different mindset. I need to win.”

It can be hard to explain, but I understand this, because I’ve heard it before. It’s similar to the “Safe is Death” theory.

“(Quenneville) always says the same thing to me: ‘You need to do well.’ Believe in myself, play with more pace. Whatever it is I do, do it 100 per cent. Giving everything I have in every shift helps our team a lot.”

Barkov trained with Patrik Laine in the off-season.

“We had a great summer. I came ready.”

Whenever Laine scores bar-down, do you say, ‘I taught him that’?”

Barkov laughed. “I think he’s done it before.”

19. The best confidence builder is winning. The Panthers have done a lot of it, entering Monday’s games tied for fifth in points percentage. Their games with Tampa Bay have been wildly entertaining; that would be a fantastic playoff series, and we’re overdue for it.

“It feels fresh,” Barkov said. “We have a lot of different guys. We don’t talk about last year.”

He likes his new linemates, Anthony Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe, saying, “They work hard, and that’s all you can ask for.”

One coach said Florida doesn’t try home-run passes as often, and Barkov sees that as a fair observation.

“There are definitely more small plays with everyone involved, not just one or two. More options. But we can’t be satisfied, and we’re not. That’s the mindset. The most fun in hockey is when you win as a group, and this is the most fun I’ve had in awhile.”

That’s massive for the Panthers, who have to sign Barkov after next season. If he hits the market, other executives will commit felonies in an attempt to land him. “I only think about this season. I want to win here, I love this team and this organization. Everyone here is like that. It’s a lot of fun of when everyone is on the same page.”

20. Finally for Barkov: Could any teammate beat you in a two-out-of-three-set tennis match?

“No chance,” he answered.

I smell a pay-per-view.

21. Kurtis Gabriel’s limitless energy added has something San Jose desperately needed (he probably gets a one-way contract next season), but the NHL won’t like Monday night’s pre-game crosscheck of the Kings’ Kurtis MacDermid.

Physical contact in warmups is a no-no.

22. It sounds like the Sabres are making some scouting changes. At the very least a shuffling, and then we see about external additions. Could be news on the assistant-GM front (Jason Karmanos very much a contender) this week.

23. There’s little we control right now, but the NHL hopes to hold the Kraken’s expansion draft in Seattle. It is preparing as if that could occur. The amateur draft won’t be in Montreal, with the Canadiens due a replacement down the road. The NFL announced Monday it will host a limited number of fans and prospects at its draft from April 29 to May 1 in Cleveland. Last I heard, the NHL version appears headed for virtual.

24. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly appeared on Hockey Central on Monday and was asked about the rest of the NHL’s TV deal. He made sure to praise current rightsholder NBC, adding, “(It would) be great if they continue to be partners.”

Now that the NFL’s television situation is sorted out — a massive $10-billion windfall across Amazon, CBS, ESPN, FOX and NBC — things will ramp up on this topic. As Daly mentioned, the league would like NBC to remain (and those conversations are happening at the highest levels), but they’ve been significantly apart on the fee. Could ESPN take the entire package if the divide can’t be bridged?

25. Really enjoyed talking with peripatetic goaltender Anton Forsberg for the podcast on Monday. Forsberg admitted something I found hard to wrap my head around: He knew when he signed with Edmonton there was a possibility he might not play a game this season. He was happy to sign there — he picked the Oilers as an unrestricted free agent — but knew, at best, he was the third option behind Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith.

“Thats the way it (was) going to be,” Forsberg said. “I just have to prepare myself if that chance comes that I’m ready for it.”

Athletes are wired to be competitive — that can’t be easy to accept.

“You think about everything else that happens in the world,” he answered. “You’re getting paid. You’re doing what you love to do. The worst possible scenario was there wouldn’t be a season this year. At the end of the day … we’re not in a bad situation. Thats the way I think about it.”

26. No chance Forsberg could have predicted the way things unfolded.

“(When I) picked Edmonton, I thought I was going to be there,” he said.

Goalie coach Dustin Schwartz “was really good with everything…. We were on the same page, and I loved working with him.”

The Oilers tried to sneak him through waivers, which failed when Carolina snagged him — a warning to everyone that third-string goalies could be as sought after as blockchain NFTs. The Hurricanes put him back on when Alex Nedeljkovic cleared, only to have Winnipeg snare Forsberg because the Jets had waiver priority over their northern Alberta rival. That meant a provincial quarantine going into Manitoba.

“I was pissed off that I got picked up by them (because) I signed with Edmonton for a reason. Then I met (Jets goalie coach) Wade Flaherty, and he was really good, too. He’s the one I spent the most time with, and I felt I got better every day, which really is nice. I understand why their goaltending is so good, because he does a really good job…. I told him I feel way better now than I did.”

When Ottawa claimed him, the Senators sent a private plane, which eliminated the need for another provincial quarantine. He played his first game in more than a year last Saturday, leading AHL Belleville over Toronto, 5-1. (Scouting report: He looked good. “I put a lot of hours in for that game,” he said.)

Then he backed up Filip Gustavsson’s first NHL’s win, Monday night over Calgary. How would he describe his season?

“Lots of travelling, lots of practices and lots of quarantine, I guess.”

27. Forsberg had some good lines. Florida’s Gustav Forsling is his daughter’s godfather. Other close friends include another Panther, Alexander Wennberg, and two Golden Knights — Oscar Dansk and William Karlsson. What have they said about this odyssey?

“They ask if I’m going to check off all 31 teams in the league,” he laughed.

Life became more enjoyable when his girlfriend and two children joined him in Winnipeg, although he felt bad they lost the friends they made during their short time there. Whatever success he sees this season, the man’s earned it.

28. By the way, absolutely loved Brady Tkachuk and Josh Norris chasing after Rasmus Andersson to get Gustavsson’s first-win puck. The way the season started hasn’t killed their spirit. Important.

29. This is a time where people are looking for work, especially in sports. SMT, which handles the player- and puck-tracking for the NHL, is hiring a Senior Software Engineer and a Lead Software Engineer for its Toronto office. (There is some flexibility in location, since most of us are working remotely during COVID.) There are different ways to enter if you want a career in sports, and this is one. Check out this link for more information.

30. The NHL is getting closer to re-trying pucks with tracking chips. Their use was stopped six days into the 2020-21 season when concern was raised about performance. There is hope they can be tested in other leagues before returning to the NHL, but nothing is easy this season.

31. Everyone reading this faces challenges in one way or another during the pandemic. A few weeks ago, Kansas City Royals GM Drayton Moore was asked about trying to make his team competitive this season. I wanted to share his answer with an audience that might not have seen it, because the inherent philosophy could help us all:

“We don’t know any other way. You’re trying to inspire people to follow your team. You’re trying to inspire young people to be a part of this game and want to play this game. I think what we’ve always tried to do is be as competitive as we possibly can. Everybody will tell you, whatever our budget is, we’ve taken it right to the max every single year…. It’s really important to try to win each and every year. I remember having a conversation with (veteran pitcher) Adam Wainwright many years ago. I had the same conversation with (now-traded prospect) Khalil Lee when we did the (Andrew) Benintendi trade. I said, ‘Look, here’s the deal. You’re going to be a major-league player some day. When you’re in that clubhouse, you’re going to realize you’re one of 26 guys who has a very small window of opportunity to win a championship. And you’re one of 26 guys who has a very small window of opportunity to maximize the financial rewards of the game. So you’re going to want to be part of an organization and a team and ownership that’s going to do everything they can to put the best team on the field to support those players and coaching staff and manager, who has to put their professional reputation on the line each and every night and answer questions multiple times a day on what went right and what went wrong.’ To be a great steward of the game, and to continue to grow the game in ways that are the most healthy, you’ve got to bust your tail for the good of the players, the fans, the coaching staff and ownership, and everyone surrounding the game…. Put the best team you can on the field. Period. That’s what it’s all about.”

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