Five potential trade destinations for Predators defenceman Mattias Ekholm

Nashville Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm (14) eludes Tampa Bay Lightning center Blake Coleman (20). (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

The Nashville Predators are open for business, and Mattias Ekholm is the most desirable trade target available.

He’s a top-four, two-way, puck-moving rearguard that will bring an instant upgrade to any contender’s blue line, and his contract (he’s still under contract for 2021-22, with a $3.75-million AAV) makes him a rare find.

That affordable cap hit and term is also what’s helping drive up the price to acquire him.

As Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman indicated in Monday’s edition of 31 Thoughts: The Podcast, the Predators are looking for “a (Jake) Muzzin kind of package: Two prospects and a first-rounder. And someone’s gonna pay that.”

Ahead of the 2019 trade deadline, the Maple Leafs sent prospects Carl Grundstrom (a 2016 second-rounder) and then-unsigned Sean Durzi (2018 second-rounder) and their 2019 first-round pick to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Muzzin, whose age, role and cap hit at the time were all very comparable to Ekholm.

So, the price is set. Where to?

“Winnipeg, I think, is in. Boston is in. I’ve had some questions about whether or not Toronto is in,” Friedman said on the podcast. “I’ve heard, at times, Montreal is in, but I’ve also had people tell me that Montreal’s not, so I don’t know what to make of that. The other wild card there is Philly.”

There’s no doubt Ekholm is generating a ton of interest elsewhere, too, but let’s start there.

Winnipeg Jets

With a star-studded group of scorers up front and the reigning Vezina Trophy winner backstopping the club within reach of the North Division lead, the Winnipeg Jets are only missing one piece: another defender.

On the ice, Ekholm makes a ton of sense here. The right-left shot balance might need some adjustments to accommodate another left shot, but the Jets have built their blue line on versatility and that’s what Ekholm brings in spades. Adjustments will need to be made on the payroll, too, as the Jets are ride up against the cap.

Free from their usual Central Division neighbours, the Jets have the best shot they’ve had in a long time to make a substantial playoff run, with U.S. Western Conference heavyweights at least two rounds away. However, considering the Predators also reside in that Central Division once they’re de-aligned… will GM David Poile really want to sell within the division?

Another name that’s been floated here is David Savard, should GM Kevin Cheveldayoff wish to circle back to his Columbus trade partner in Jarmo Kekalainen.

Boston Bruins

Anyone who thought the Bruins’ blue line would take a step back (guilty!) in the wake of losing captain Zdeno Chara and top-four rearguard Torey Krug was clearly mistaken. Boston currently has the third-best goals against per game (2.33) and has been excellent at suppressing opponents’ shot counts, averaging a second-best 26.9 per contest.

So, with a strong defence, do they really need to add? Yes.

While bringing in a source of secondary scoring should be a priority in their push for the playoffs, few teams understand better than the Bruins the importance of a solid, deep blue line in the post-season than the Bruins. Ekholm would be a huge add here, and with the window of contention still very much open, bringing in a D-man with a little term extends that even more.

Montreal Canadiens

A busy off-season of acquisitions checked off multiple boxes and showed us that GM Marc Bergevin isn’t waiting around to win. A mid-season coaching change amid what has been a roller-coaster campaign is another indicator that Bergevin’s in win-now mode. Unafraid to make a bold deal (or two, or three), it feels like Montreal could be a really interesting team here, especially with Ben Chiarot’s injury opening up a spot.

The Habs have a ton of draft capital, including a whopping 14 this year — their own first-rounder, two seconds and three thirds, for starters. There’s some uncertainty out there about the true value of 2021 picks, considering the lack of playing time for so many prospects this year. So, should Nashville desire 2022 picks, the Canadiens also still own all of their picks for next year. Cap space will be an issue, so Bergevin would need to get creative, especially if he’s to also address some more scoring depth. Then again, when has Bergevin ever been afraid to get creative?

Toronto Maple Leafs

They set the asking price for a defender with term when they landed Muzzin from the Kings… Now, can they do it again?

General manager Kyle Dubas made it clear Tuesday he’s working the phones and willing to deal top prospects to make this team better in its win-now efforts — and that he’s looking to act fast, as the mandatory federal quarantine means any deadline deals made on April 12 actually means acquiring a player on April 27 or 28. That’s too late.

Dubas indicated that a pure rental probably makes the most sense here, as it requires less salary-cap puzzling for the cap-strapped team, but considering defence has often been the downfall here, a player like Ekholm could make a massive impact and enable the club to roll out three really strong pairings with a stable left-shot D anchoring each.

Philadelphia Flyers

If Ekholm was just a pure rental on an expiring deal, it might be tough to see Philadelphia really going for it with him. While their usual division is difficult come playoff time, the re-aligned East is looking even tougher. Do they truly believe this is the year?

Ekholm’s term would see this move make a lot of sense. The Flyers are building something special with a surge of young talent coming in and a star in net, and the addition of a veteran, versatile rearguard to help guide things on the blue line would be a worthy investment that doesn’t just help their odds of a run this year but next year, too.

Philly’s got a deep pool of prospects and all their top picks for the next few years, which puts them in position to land a big name should they choose to make a deal.

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