The Flyers are having a rough go of it this year, to put things nicely. Philly is struggling to execute with consistency, stop pucks and generally do anything right for more than two games in a row. Particularly infuriating has been the play on the blue line this year. While the departure of Matt Niskanen’s steady presence on the top pair was obviously going to hurt, few fans or members of the organization would have thought that they’d be getting massive regression from Phil Myers, Ivan Provorov, and to some extent Travis Sanheim. The “addition” of the tire fire that is Erik Gustafsson to the already gasoline-soaked unit was just the kicker.
As such, Philadelphia has been heavily involved in the rumors circulating about Predators defender Mattias Ekholm, who would be a massive addition to this roster even as a rental. Still, there are notable qualms about adding such a player; with the approaching expansion draft complicating Ekholm’s status as well as his soon-to-expire contract, the reasoning for why Chuck Fletcher might be reluctant to send a premium package of futures is clear. All of the above combined with the recent nosedive of the Flyers’ playoff hopes spelled out a relatively stark future where Philly stood pat at the deadline or made quiet moves like last year’s acquisitions.
Enter Elliotte Friedman, who dropped a nuclear bomb on the latest edition of 31 Thoughts. The statement from Friedman in question?
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.)
This comes as a shock to me, a Predators fan, seeing as the team has vocally stated that Ellis was an untouchable player in trade talks earlier in the year. It’s additionally surprising when you consider that Nashville is back on their bullshit and climbing into the conversation for the Central Division’s fourth spot on the back of absurd goaltending by Juuse Saros and the emergence of Eeli Tolvanen. David Poile recently commented that the team is in an “interesting position,” which every Nashville fan understands as code for “we may or may not delay on selling assets for the millionth time in a row.” The intrigue gets even more exacerbated when you consider the latter half of Friedman’s deliberation:
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.
Friedman rarely says anything without any basis, so it’s fair to say that the possibility of Nashville moving Ellis isn’t negligible. Philadelphia makes perfect sense as a target, yada yada yada, Flyers fans start losing their minds and offering Jake Voracek and a bunch of other nonsense for Ellis in mock trades. That’s where I come in: a lot of Flyers fans are relatively uninformed about the lesser-known member of Nashville’s top pair because, put simply, nobody outside of Preds fans watch the team for fun. I’m here to enlighten y’all on the big questions, such as the following: does Ellis actually fit with this team? How good is he? What kind of package would be going back the other way? Is he worth that kind of capital? How does he impact the future plans of the Flyers? All of this and more will be included below. Settle in and get ready for a crash course in all things considering Nashville’s Human Rocket Ship.
Does Ellis fit?
Absolutely. The Flyers are missing a top-pair defender who can play the right side, and they’re at the minimum years away from possibly having any of the younger players become a true “number one” defenseman. Ellis is all of those things and more, making him an extremely attractive addition for Chuck Fletcher even if the team hasn’t been playing well.
Ellis has a long-term contract that can be argued as one of the best value deals for a player of his caliber in the league, being signed at $6.25 million AAV until the end of the 2025-2026 season. At 30 years old, Ellis isn’t exactly a spring chicken by NHL standards, but defensemen of his styling tend to age quite well so I’m not particularly concerned by the length of the contract.
It’s essentially like the addition of Kevin Hayes, but on steroids; Ellis fills a crucial need, so you worry about the cost of the later years when they come. The Flyers will reap additional benefits if Rocketman continues to outperform his salary (which is quite possible), so in all honesty the move seems like a no-brainer to me if it’s feasible. Ellis would have considerable impact on the younger players as a guy who took plenty of time to develop as well, would add a new dimension to a lifeless roster in the current and future seasons, and additionally could add some pop into the leadership group like Hayes did last year. The cost would be hefty, but the fit is there.
How good is he?
Absolutely bonkers. Ellis might have an argument for being the best RHD in the entire league when he’s healthy, something only cemented over the past few years. From a tape perspective, the Nashville defender is the best of both worlds; he’s excellent on all 200 feet of the ice and boasts a deadly slapshot and underrated hands to boot. During the outset of Roman Josi’s Norris run last year, it’s fair to say that he was the second best player on his pair. Yes, that’s not an exaggeration: Ellis was that phenomenal prior to getting knocked out by noted jackass/war criminal Corey Perry in the 2019 Winter Classic game.
Let’s get something out of the way really early: just because Ryan Ellis is small at 5’10”, 180 lbs. doesn’t mean that he’s bad at defense. In fact, he’s quite good at it, something that might blow the minds of people who thought that Sam Morin was going to be the next Chris Pronger. Ellis wins defensive battles by being the most intelligent defenseman in Nashville Predators history. He’s not a particularly incredible skater or a flashy player, but he’s still arguably the best overall player of the Josi/Subban/Ekholm/Ellis nucleus that took Nashville to a Cup appearance a while back.
Ellis is coming off of a year where he missed 20 games and still finished THIRD IN THE NHL in goals above replacement, a metric that the twins over at Evolving-Hockey.com have developed to try and gauge player value. While he’s flown under the radar, it’s fair to argue that when he’s been healthy, Ellis has been one of the five best defensemen in the league over the past two or three years. The Beard had 38 points in 49 games in the 2019-2020 season on a Nashville team with an impotent power play and little offensive talent, including eight goals. While some might think this was a product of Roman Josi, Ellis actually outpaced the Nashville captain in all respects aside from transition play, marking himself as one of the best players in the NHL.
Ellis has been a leader at every level through his career, earning captaincies on his junior team and Team Canada in addition to an alternate captain role with the Preds. It was widely rumored that Nashville was going to name him the next captain after the departure of Mike Fisher, proving that he holds a lot of sway in the locker room there. In addition to this, the Pocket Rocket has been a stellar playoff performer, averaging just under .5 points per game for his career in the NHL. Particularly notable was his dominance of the St Louis Blues in the 2017 Cup run, where he notched a seven-game point streak.
Ellis is everything Flyers fans want, sans physicality. He’s never going to be a guy who can truly lay the boom on other players, but that’s not his game anyways. The concerns surrounding Ellis is are pretty straightforward: his skating might not age well and he’s suffered numerous injuries in his career, including the current lower body issue that’s put him on the IR. Still, when healthy, Ellis has been an impact player and would be the best defender to lace up skates for the Orange & Black since Chris Pronger. Who doesn’t want a guy who can make plays like this happen with Nashville Predators legend Wayne Simmonds?
What’s the asking price?
A package for Ellis would have to be in the neighborhood of what the San Jose Sharks paid for Erik Karlsson. The comparable here is difficult, because it’s incredibly rare that a legitimate top-tier defenseman gets dealt while they’re on a long-term deal, but I’d say Ellis and pre-trade Karlsson have similar value given Karlsson’s foot injury, age and contract status. In fact, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Ellis command an even pricier return; his future outlook and overall risk is considerably lower, even if the ceiling also is, and Nashville is dealing from a position of strength as compared to Ottawa’s fire sale.
In terms of a rough estimate, I’d say this kind of trade would cost Philadelphia a decent roster player with short-term value, two of the top ten prospects in the organization’s pipeline, a first round pick and a conditional second round pick. An additional expiring contract could be tossed in to make cap space work. If I’m David Poile, the starting point for my demands would be one of Oskar Lindblom or Morgan Frost, Yegor Zamula and Bobby Brink, and a 2021 or 2022 first rounder paired with a conditional 2021 or 2022 second rounder (with the condition being something like “if the Flyers win a playoff round in 2021, the pick becomes a first rounder in 2022, or something of that nature). It’s a big price to pay, but players like Ellis don’t come around often. Keep in mind that I’m also citing this as a starting point, rather than a final trade. Erik Gustafsson and other low-value players could be added into a package to make cap space work.
How would this affect the future of this team?
Ellis is worth the price I listed above if the Flyers think that this roster is capable of turning things around after this weird season ends. With Cam York and Yegor Zamula on the horizon and a relatively young group of forwards behind Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek that simply aren’t playing up to their potential this year, it’s reasonable for the Flyers to expend some of their prospects to add a transformative piece. The drawback (or positive, depending upon who you ask) is that the window for this team shrinks considerably. Ellis becomes another highly-paid player on a roster that will eventually have to shell out for Joel Farabee, Carter Hart and others.
The Flyers would need to engage fully in a win-now mentality for a blockbuster like this to happen. Based upon yesterday’s press conference, Chuck Fletcher seems pretty relaxed concerning the team’s struggles this year. David Poile doesn’t look like he’s in a rush to make a move, and all of the signs point towards Nashville holding on to Ellis for the immediate future. Still, it’s a rare opportunity to get a player who instantly improves a weakness as much as Ellis. It’s worth consideration at the very least.
For more on Ryan Ellis, check out his report card by On The Forecheck’s Bobby Misey from the 2019-2020 season. Bobby is much more conservative in his views of Ellis, so if you feel like I’ve pumped his tires a bit too much, this might be more your speed. Thanks for reading, and as always, go Flyers.