We’re less than a month away from the NHL’s trade deadline. With that, comes a ton of rumours as teams try to improve their teams to make a push for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Unlike years prior, the Canadiens find themselves in the mix of teams looking to improve their roster to solidify a playoff position. The Habs currently hold onto the fourth and final playoff position in the North Division with a two-point lead over the Calgary Flames with a game in hand. However, if they want to ensure they are playing in the postseason this season, improvements will need to be made. One player who would certainly improve the Canadiens roster is Nashville Predators defenceman, Mattias Ekholm.
Canadiens Should Target Mattias Ekholm Prior To the Trade Deadline
Let’s face it, the Canadiens have been struggling. Despite being the highest spending team in the offseason and a hot start to the season, the Canadiens find themselves hanging onto a playoff spot by a thread. To make matters worse, they recently lost a two-game series to the Flames. Who now sit just two points back of the Canadiens for the final position in the North Division. With a 4-3-3 record in their last 10, Marc Bergevin is feeling the heat.
Bergevin elected to fire former head coach Claude Julien, assistant coach Kirk Muller and goaltending coach Stephane Waite recently in order to shake up the organization and provide a new voice to the players. And while the Canadiens have been playing better, the results have been much of the same. Now, of course, you shouldn’t push the panic button on Dominique Ducharme just yet. The new coach needs time to bring his message to the team. However, time is not on Bergevin’s side. The GM needs to stop the bleeding and quickly. If not, his club could end up missing the playoffs for what technically would be a fourth straight time (Canadiens made the playoffs last season due to a play-in-round victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins).
Bergevin has shown the willingness to make big moves. Acquiring Ekholm would certainly be another one. Despite the upgrades on defence in the offseason, bringing in Joel Edmundson and more importantly Alexander Romanov, the defence is still missing a solid, top-pairing defender for the left side. Ekholm would certainly fill that need for the Canadiens.
Upgrading the Top Four
The Canadiens lost one of their most important defencemen in Ben Chiarot after suffering a fractured hand in a fight with Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller. Because of this, the Canadiens had to move rookie defender Alexander Romanov up to the top pairing next to Shea Weber and bring in Victor Mete to play alongside Brett Kulak on the bottom pair. Chiarot was a minute-eater for the Canadiens, logging 21:22 minutes per game. This ranked him third on the team in ice time. That is hard to replace, even for a promising rookie like Romanov. And considering Chiarot will be out for the next six to eight weeks due to the injury, the Canadiens should act fast in trying to replace him.
Ekholm on the other hand is well accustomed to playing big minutes. He currently ranks third on the Predators roster with 22:18 minutes per game. Logging almost a minute more in ice-time per game than Chiarot. However, the biggest difference here would be that Ekholm is a legitimate top-four defender. Whereas Chiarot is currently miscast as a top-pairing defenceman. Ekholm would bring a larger skillset to the Canadiens lineup. He plays a much more well-rounded game than Chiarot and is a lot more mobile than the burly defender. He would be an excellent complement to captain Shea Weber. The move would also bring familiarity for Weber, as he was a teammate of Ekholm’s during his time in Nashville.
Adding Ekholm to the Canadiens defence would allow Chiarot to move down the lineup and play alongside Jeff Petry or Romanov when he eventually returns. This would solidify the top six and give Romanov a more stable veteran defence partner.
Ekholm Checks off All the Boxes for the Canadiens
While there will be other defencemen available at the deadline, Ekholm is one that checks off all the boxes for the Canadiens. He’s big, at 6-ft-4, 215 lbs. He’s an excellent puck mover. Something the Canadiens have been missing on their top pairing since the days of Andrei Markov. And his ability to play both special teams is something the Canadiens could drastically use. While the powerplay has gotten better this season, Ekholm would provide an extra boost. He has a cannon of a shot and with his puck-moving abilities, could give the Canadiens an extra weapon with the man advantage.
However, the real area Ekholm excels is killing penalties. Which is an area the Canadiens struggle mightily. The Canadiens rank 21st in the league, killing on 76.2 percent of the penalties they take. Which is just not good enough. This is an area where Ekholm can drastically improve the Canadiens and allow them to have a better chance to win games.
Ekholm is a master at clear the front of the net, using his large frame to overpower the opposition. But also is so sound positionally. He reads plays extremely well, intercepts them, clogs the lanes and uses his large frame and stick to cover such a large area. He possesses all the tools to be an effective penalty killer and defender. Which is something the Canadiens certainly need. Especially with the loss of Chiarot.
The Cost To Grab Ekholm Is Something the Canadiens Could Certainly Deal With
According to Elliotte Friedman, the cost to grab Ekholm would be a first-round pick and two prospects. Much like what the Toronto Maple Leafs gave up to acquire Jake Muzzin just a couple of seasons ago. However, could the Canadiens entice the Predators by sending young players already at the NHL level? Players like Artturi Lehkonen, who is just 25 years old and has 312 games of NHL experience and Victor Mete who is 22 with 178 games of NHL experience may be something the Predators would be interested in acquiring in a deal for Ekholm.
Lehkonen is one of the hardest workers in the Canadiens lineup. He possesses a strong two-way game and can move up and down the lineup as needed. As well as play both special teams. He has shown the ability to score, scoring between 10 to 20 goals every year since entering the league. He would be a depth scoring option for the Predators, who hasn’t quite entered his prime.
Mete is a young, speedy defenceman who could certainly fit into the Predators’ plans moving forward. While he’s not the biggest defenceman, he makes up for it with speed and his ability to carry and move the puck out of the zone. There are still some growing pains with Mete, but he is still young and has time to develop his game.
If that’s not what the Predators are looking for and they’d rather go the prospect route, the Canadiens have plenty of prospects to offer. While names like Cole Caufield, Mattias Norlinder, Cayden Primeau and most likely Kaiden Guhle will be untouchable, the Canadiens have built up a ton of depth in their prospect pool at every position which they can certainly afford to let go of a couple. Players such as Jayden Struble, Jordan Harris, Josh Brook, Cale Fleury, Ryan Poehling, Jan Mysak, Luke Tuch and Jesse Ylonen are names that come to mind that they could use as trade bait. They also have a ton of picks in the upcoming draft. Holding 14 selections, nine of which are in the first four rounds. The Canadiens could come up with a ton of different trade packages to pry the defender away from the Predators.
Expansion Draft in Mind
The expansion draft also plays a big factor here for both teams. For the Predators, unless they decide to just protect eight players of any position, would have to choose between Ryan Ellis, Dante Fabbro and Mattias Ekholm as players to protect. Roman Josi needs to be protected as he has a no-movement-clause. This would allow the Predators to get something for the older Ekholm while being able to protect the Fabbro from the expansion draft.
For the Canadiens, acquiring Ekholm would mean they would have tough decisions on their back end when it comes to the expansion draft as well. Players like Ben Chiarot and a youngster like Cale Fluery would be left exposed. Just an extra thing for the club to think about when it comes down to making a deal.
Don’t Forget the Salary Cap
Last, but maybe the most important aspect of the deal would be the salary cap. Which when it comes to Ekholm, is outstanding. Ekholm’s contract only brings in a cap hit of $3.75 million until the end of the 2021-22 season. That’s incredible value for such an excellent defender. However, even with the low salary, it would still be tight for the Canadiens to fit under their salary cap.
Placing Ben Chiarot on LTIR would provide relief. However, the Canadiens would want to move out some salary in the deal to create some extra space for the team. This is why moving Lehkonen in the deal makes so much sense for the Canadiens. But it also allows the Predators to suck more assets out of teams when they moving such a quality cap-friendly contract. We could see Lehkonen be packaged with a prospect as well as pick. Just to make the deal make sense for both teams.
The Canadiens Need To Move Fast
What the Canadiens don’t want to do is wait too long to make the deal. Unless things change, the Canadiens would need to wait 14 days until they could get Ekholm into the lineup. This is due to the restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic. Waiting too long to make a move could greatly affect their chances at a playoff position. And missing the playoffs, after being the highest spending team in the offseason as well as fire three members of your coaching staff, could spell the end for Marc Bergevin in Montreal.