WINNIPEG – The complexities and challenges are numerous, yet the potential reward makes it impossible to ignore.
When it comes to the NHL trade deadline during this compressed, pandemic season, uncertainty remains the order of the day.
How many teams will be buying, how many will be selling and how many of those clubs will be authorized to take on salary at a time when the losses far outweigh the revenues?
With the midway point of the season quickly approaching, many teams are beginning to get a better glimpse of what category they best fit in: contender or pretender.
There are no towels being thrown in, yet some separation is occurring.
With that in mind, even if the early indications are that it might be a buyer’s market, all it takes is a couple of teams to express interest for that pivotal player for that to change leading up to April 12.
Following a 4-3 overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night, the Winnipeg Jets find themselves sitting in second place in the North Division with a record of 15-7-1.
Currently, in a stretch with seven consecutive games between the Canadiens and the first-place Toronto Maple Leafs, the Jets are in the midst of finding out if they’re going to be staying in the contender category or moving closer to the middle of the pack.
Will this run of 17 games in 31 days provide a clear enough picture for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to determine if he wants to push all of his chips into the middle of the table?
Or will Cheveldayoff tip his hand earlier and choose to make a pre-emptive strike, paving the way for any acquired player to participate in a longer run of games during the stretch run and providing more time to get acclimated in his new surroundings?
The Jets have already been involved in the highest-profile deal of this season and it’s unlikely that the next trade would approach the magnitude of the one that sent Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Pierre-Luc Dubois.
Speaking of Dubois, he scored his second overtime winner in 12 days on Thursday night, helping the Jets improve to 5-0 during the three-on-three session.
He’s up to four goals and six points in eight games with the Jets – and he seems to be finding his way after emerging from a 14-day quarantine and a four-game absence because of a lower-body injury that came after suiting up in just two games with his new team.
Barring a loosening of government restrictions, it’s reasonable to expect that the two weeks of quarantine time could still be in place in the days and weeks leading up to the NHL trade deadline.
Even with that in mind, it wouldn’t be a surprise for Cheveldayoff to take another shot at landing another high-end trade target.
The laundry list of things Ekholm could bring to the table should the Predators embrace a rebuild is a lengthy one.
Ekholm is a big (6-foot-4, 215 pounds), mobile blue-liner.
He’s a solid puck-mover with a heavy shot.
He plays a physical game, brings some bite and among his strengths are clearing the front of the net and contributing to the penalty kill.
He has 65 games of playoff experience and has been involved in Game 7s and made it to the Stanley Cup final in 2017.
At 30 years of age, he’s got plenty of tread left on his tires.
Perhaps most importantly, Ekholm wouldn’t just be a rental, since he’s locked up through the end of the 2021-22 season at the reasonable cap hit of $3.75 million — which represents a value proposition, especially for a team that’s going to need to provide a healthy raise to Neal Pionk during the off-season.
For a team looking to get back to full contender status after a run to the Western Conference final in 2018 and two early exits since, Ekholm is quite simply a perfect fit.
Much like Paul Stastny, Ekholm is a no-maintenance player and a quiet leader. The type of individual you can count on when the stakes are high.
So why would the Predators be looking to move him?
First and foremost: he’s a guy with considerable value and someone who has the ability to help push a team over the top.
Unless something changes, Ekholm is at risk of not being protected by the Predators in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft — unless Nashville opts for an eight-skater approach as opposed to seven forwards and three defencemen (Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Dante Fabbro).
The Dubois deal showed the Jets were serious, not only for this season, but with the intention of trying to extend their window to win.
The Predators are another not-so-subtle reminder that the window doesn’t always stay open as long as the management team or the players expect it to.
So with goalie Connor Hellebuyck, captain Blake Wheeler and first-line centre Mark Scheifele all with contracts that expire after the 2023-24 campaign — the Jets organization is in win-now mode.
Acquiring a player like Ekholm makes so much sense, but it won’t be as easy as Cheveldayoff calling up Predators GM David Poile and ironing out the terms.
Poile will most certainly be looking to maximize the return for Ekholm.
Much like the Jets had to do in finalizing the move for Dubois, they’ll likely have to pay a premium to win the bid for Ekholm’s services.
With teams like the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins among multiple clubs that figure to have interest in Ekholm, what’s it going to take to be the last team standing in this race?
That’s where the picture gets a tad cloudy, though it’s been mentioned in hockey circles that the return figures to be similar to what the Los Angeles Kings received from the Toronto Maple Leafs for Jake Muzzin (a first-rounder, plus forward prospect Carl Grundstrom and the rights to defenceman Sean Durzi) or the Vegas Golden Knights for Alec Martinez (two second-round picks).
With a flat salary cap for next season, some teams will be reluctant to include a first-round pick and another piece, but that’s what it’s likely going to take.
Previous deals the Jets made at the NHL trade deadline for Stastny (first-round pick, plus forward prospect Erik Foley) and Kevin Hayes (first-round pick, plus forward Brendan Lemieux) to bolster the centre position have shown a willingness from Cheveldayoff to offer significant assets for players.
The Predators would probably also be looking for another futures element before considering a deal, preferably a player that wouldn’t need to be protected in the aforementioned expansion draft.
Top defence prospect Ville Heinola is a non-starter, as close to an untouchable as the Jets have in the minors.
Fellow blue-liner Dylan Samberg isn’t far behind, since he projects to grow into the type of player Ekholm already is – a shutdown guy that can contribute to driving play while playing top-four minutes. For the record, Samberg’s offensive ceiling isn’t as high as Ekholm’s but that doesn’t diminish his value.
Cole Perfetti, the 2020 first-rounder, isn’t going anywhere either as the top centre prospect in the organization, but that’s where things could get interesting.
Predators goalie Pekka Rinne is expected to retire at the end of this season, so it’s natural Manitoba Moose netminder Mikhail Berdin could be of interest.
What about 2017 first-rounder Kristian Vesalainen?
Vesalainen has taken significant strides this season in terms of his development and his assignment to the AHL on Thursday was for the sole purpose of getting the left-winger major minutes and keeping him ready for the next time his number is called.
Vesalainen remains part of the Jets’ future plans, but the fact he doesn’t have to be protected from Seattle would be viewed as a major bonus by the Predators as well.
The point is it’s probably going to take a legitimate prospect to top up the offer.
The Jets will have their own expansion draft issues to sort out this summer and bringing in Ekholm could lead to several difficult choices.
But at a time when many other teams might be hesitant to roll the dice on a deal of this magnitude, Cheveldayoff must fully explore the temptation to sacrifice a bit of the future for the opportunity to deliver the type of player that could immediately change the dynamic of the defence corps.