I’m the biggest Mattias Ekholm fan you’ll ever find, and I say that with authority. I watched his entire career play out live, he scored the first playoff goal I was ever in-person for, and I have a puck signed by him sitting next to me on my desk as I write this. He’s consistently been one of the most undervalued assets in the NHL and I love his game; he’s my favorite player in the history of the league. With all of that said, I can say this: all of the following will be an objective look at why he’s a fit for this team and what he’s worth. As someone who’s watched every game Nashville has played for the past three years and covered the Predators since the beginning of 2019, I’d say I’m mildly qualified to speak about what he’s capable of. Let me explain exactly why the “Big Swedish Redwood” is worth every bit of what he’ll cost.
How good is the fit?
The Flyers are in need of a top-pair defender who can stabilize their blue line. The absence of Matt Niskanen has been apparent from day one, and this team needs a steady hand to get the best out of their current talent. Mattias Ekholm does everything Matt Niskanen did at his peak, but better. Offensively, Ekholm is coming off of one of his best years as a play driver and finisher (33 points in 68 games) despite being paired with a historically awful rookie partner in Dante Fabbro who clearly wasn't comfortable in the NHL. The idea that he’s simply a one-dimensional player who can’t contribute in the offensive zone is a farce. While best served as a defense-first player, his ability to step up in the rush or play low in the zone has constantly been a valuable asset in Nashville. I think it’d be interesting to pair him with a guy like Travis Sanheim, who has a very similar profile to another partner he excelled with: late-stage PK Subban.
Pulling a scouting report from my tape review of Ekholm for On The Forecheck this summer, I wrote the following:
Plays with a bit of a physical edge, but doesn’t chase for hits; takes mostly smart gaps but could stand to be more aggressive in stepping up in the play; showed improvement in playing down low but isn’t exactly a plus player with the puck on his stick; solid passing vision and a nice shot, but defers to other players too often at times. Skating seems to have taken an extremely mild step back, with occasional lapses in crossovers and edgework, but nothing worrying; glaring issues with communication with his partner and a refusal to trust him to make the right play; uncharacteristically caught out of position numerous times as a result of miscommunication. Can be effective in transition, but clearly isn’t comfortable in the role of primary puck mover.
The main reason all of that looks negative is because, by the numbers, Ekholm has been weaker defensively for the past two years. This has been a main point of concern for many Flyers fans, but as someone with the benefit of watching him night in and night out, I know why this profile is a bit deceptive. The short answer is that Ekholm and Dante Fabbro were an abysmal match and had terrible chemistry, an issue that’s persisted into this year. Fabbro often forced Ekholm into the role that Subban vacated thanks to his Uber-conservative approach to playing defense, and his frequent mental mistakes and brutal turnovers as the “one man back” covering rush attempts often forced Ekholm to overpursue and warp his coverage.
This play is a microcosm of how Fabbro ruined what could’ve been a career year from the Swedish defender. Ekholm makes the correct decision under pressure and defers to Fabbro behind the net, who isn’t under the forecheck. Fabbro wipes out and turns the puck over, leaving Ekholm out of position. Lots of those incidents seemed to crop up over the course of the year.
In terms of the defense, it’s all still there, and the offensive contributions he can bring will be solid at the bare minimum. Don’t tell me the Flyers aren’t in dire need of a player who can make this play with regularity, or I’ll call you a liar:
The player is good, and that’s the bottom line. The analytical profile is deceptive, as is the eye test without added context. Trust me here, because I want the Flyers to be better; he’s a piece that could make this roster a legitimate Cup favorite if the rest of the team can finally get it together and put the damn puck on net. Finally, one more thing of note: it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to put a stellar defensive defender in front of a struggling Carter Hart so he has more time to adjust. Just saying.
How obtainable is he?
The Predators are reportedly on the verge of a serious overhaul, with the majority of their trades focusing on bringing in late-stage prospects to bolster their sub-par pipeline. The Flyers happen to have prospect depth in spades, something that should assist them in making a deal work. Nashville is especially attracted to center prospects, so Morgan Frost is the obvious sacrificial lamb here. In terms of making the cap work, it’s a lot less difficult than you’d think; the Predators could entertain an offer involving Shayne Gostisbehere (unlikely, in my opinion) or could agree to take on the expiring contract of Erik Gustafsson along with Frost’s ELC to make the cap hits balance.
In terms of what a trade would look like, if David Poile is doing his job (questionable) the return will be hefty. Ekholm is a cost-controlled top pair defender ($3.75 million AAV for two years), and those guys never go on the market; few even exist in the league at this point. The starting point of a trade for me would be Gustafsson, Frost, a 2022 first and a 2021 second. I don’t think Poile could reasonably ask for much more than that, but that’s no short order for Chuck Fletcher to ante up either. Still, this is a team flush with young talent that has a strong prospect pool, even if the group coming up lacks upside. The Flyers need to go after a championship before guys like Couturier, Farabee and Hart get paid big bucks on extensions, and Ekholm is an acquisition that helps them do so.
What about the expansion draft?
It’s easy to understand the concerns about exposing one of Ekholm, Sanheim or Myers to the draft, and if Chuck Fletcher is looking at Ekholm as a rental, the aforementioned price becomes even more difficult for him to swallow. That said, this is a top-pair caliber player that the Flyers are acquiring; Phil Myers and Travis Sanheim have no guarantees of ever becoming that. Honestly, the best course of action to reinforce the Flyers’ chances of contending would be to sacrifice a few additional futures to dissuade the Kraken from taking whoever’s exposed, keeping all three players on the roster. Having Ekholm gives the team a lot of flexibility down the road, and that’s desirable with the upcoming cap complications. If the team no longer in need of his services, they can sell him at the deadline as a rental piece to recoup some of the value lost and be happy that they had a good player for a year or so. Say Sanheim comes to the end of his bridge deal and wants huge money, or Ekholm plays incredibly well in his time in Philly and wants to be extended. Both are possibilities worthy of anticipation, and keeping Ekholm allows Chuck Fletcher to better prepare for either outcome.
If a trade goes down, should I be excited?
Absolutely. Ekholm plays a style of defense that Philly fans have never been treated to. Chris Pronger was a minutes-eating force, but he did a lot of his best work through brute force in his late career. Mark Howe and Eric Desjardins were also studs, but they were more renowned for being offensive contributors, even if they were good players in their own ends. If anyone is an apt comparison, it’s former Nashville defender Kimmo Timonen. Ekholm is what would happen if somebody injected the smaller Finn with a massive a mount of testosterone when he was little and then kidnapped him to Sweden.
In terms of personality, he’s a great fit too. The 6’4” frame he rolls around in isn’t just for show; Ekholm likes to hit and scrap with players in front of the net. He also has a propensity for telling refs how awful they are at their jobs, although he’s sadly been a bit less fiery as of late. Some of my best Ekholm memories are from the postseason, where he’s beloved in Nashville for doling out crushing hip-checks and scoring clutch goals. He’s everything that Flyers fans have been clamoring for in a defender for years, and he’s out there for the taking. Go get him Chuck.