Bruins

NHL Notebook: Why Mattias Ekholm should be Bruins’ top trade target on blue line

(Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

It's a tradition as woven into the fabric of Bruins fandom as pregame slices at Halftime. Rejoice, everyone. For the annual clamoring for an impact winger is nearly upon us.

Even though the revamped NHL trade deadline is still a ways away (April 12) in this COVID-impacted campaign, whispers linking the B's to a number of potential targets up front have already started to take shape over the last few weeks.

Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman already mentioned Boston as a potential suitor for Canucks winger Jake Virtanen (hardly a top-six fixture, of course), while a listless showing at 5v5 play on Thursday against the Devils — coupled with a two-goal evening from a familiar trade target Kyle Palmieri  — started to get the gears turning on just how potent Boston's top six could be with another proven scoring talent added to the mix.

Indeed, in the six weeks between now and the deadline, there stands a good chance that the Bruins — fully cognizant of just how many cracks at the Cup they'll get with this veteran group — peruses the trade market in order to put an end to the carousel of wingers to David Krejci's right.

But when it comes to shoring up this talented — but suddenly very green — B's roster, the writing is on the wall. If another deep run is going to be in the cards for this Bruins club, a top-four presence on the blue line will need to be brought in accordingly.

But rather than 2011, in which Boston acquired Tomáš Kaberle in an effort to spark its stagnant power play from the blue line (whoops!), this Bruins team isn't looking for a specialized weapon to add to its D corps as the missing piece. Rather, it's simple security that they're in search of — with a veteran, minutes-eating presence sorely missed on a defensive unit that, while impressive out of the gate, carries plenty of risk if youngsters like Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril are thrust into featured roles against the heavyweight slugfest that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Luckily for Don Sweeney and his staff, there are a number of potential targets already emerging on the trade market that fit the bill as proven pieces on the blue line — with few checking all the boxes quite like Nashville's Mattias Ekholm.

It's a potential fit that's gained plenty of momentum over the last few weeks, with The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun mentioning the Bruins, Flyers, Capitals and Jets as potential suitors for the 30-year-old blueliner.

So how would Ekholm elevate an already solid Bruins defense, where exactly would he fit on this roster — and most importantly, what exactly would it cost?

Let's take a deep dive, shall we?

The fit? 

If you were focusing on the raw numbers, you could make the case that this B's defense is already more than capable of holding its own, even without a defenseman like Ekholm.

Even with guys like Lauzon, Zboril and Connor Clifton all logging regular minutes — and key cogs like Matt Grzelcyk spending most of this season on the shelf so far — Boston's metrics in its own zone have been very encouraging.

3rd in NHL in goals against per game – 2.20
3rd in NHL in 5v5 shot attempts against per 60 minutes  – 47.6

1st in NHL in 5v5 shots on goal against per 60 minutes  – 24.4
3rd in NHL in 5v5 expected goals against per 60 minutes  – 1.86

So what gives? Do the Bruins really need to upgrade their defense?

Ultimately, I don't think there's anything wrong with acknowledging that this defense has more than held up its end of the bargain so far in 2021 — while also being conscious of the fact that there's a TON of risk involved with rolling out a left side featuring a pair of youngsters in Lauzon and Zboril with six combined games of playoff experience during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Add in the fact that Grzelcyk has been plagued with lower-body ailments in the early going of this season, and it seems fairly evident that another veteran option on the left side could go a long way come the spring and summer.

After all, the last thing you'd want for this Bruins team — in what could be one of its last legitimate pushes for the Cup — is it getting stuck in a similar situation as the one outlined below during the 2017 postseason series against the Senators.

https://twitter.com/NHLBruins/status/854102192294375424

Wooooooof.

Now, when compared to that 2017 squad, the 2021 Bruins might have a few more appealing options in its reserves in case of injuries/ineffective play in skaters like Clifton and perhaps even another rookie like Urho Vaakanainen. But again, you're still asking a LOT from a crew of young skaters on this D corps, especially against battle-hardened clubs that will almost certainly stand in Boston's way such as the Capitals, Flyers and Penguins within the East Division.

If Boston acquires a left-shot D like Ekholm, Bruce Cassidy and his staff suddenly have a lot more options when it comes to balancing out their blue line, with any postseason hiccups for guys like Lauzon or Zboril able to be absorbed a bit more when a guy like Ekholm is out logging heavy minutes (21:28 ATOI in his career). Whether it be next to Charlie McAvoy or Brandon Carlo, Ekholm would give the Bruins a pretty deep top-four grouping, allowing one of Lauzon or Grzelcyk to likely slot further down on the depth chart and earn easier assignments during the postseason.

Even if Boston opts to not target a defender as credentialed as Ekholm or other legitimate top-four options, it seems like a given that the B's will, at the very least, kick the tires on some depth options in order to cover all the bases on their blue line.

The appeal?

Even off of just his baseline stats and pure usage rates, Ekholm falls right in line with what the Bruins are in desperate need of on defense — with the Preds assistant captain averaging over 23 minutes of ice time in four straight seasons from 2016-20.

Boston's defense already features a solid amount of thump in guys like Lauzon and Kevan Miller, but Ekholm and his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame would certainly be a welcome addition. But Ekholm is far more than just a big-bodied, stay-at-home option a la Brenden Dillon, as a lot of his value also comes from the fact that he's been a reliable generator of 5v5 offense as well — another area where Boston desperately needs some more playmakers added to the mix.

Since the 2018-19 season, there have been 130 defensemen that have logged at least 2,000 minutes of 5v5 time on ice. When it comes to 5v5 points per 60 minutes, Ekholm ranks 27th in that pool of skaters with a rate of 1.07 — higher than other established star blueliners such as Alex Pietrangelo (1.06), Jaccob Slavin (1.03), Torey Krug (1.02), Zach Werenski (1.00), Miro Heiskanen (0.97) and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (0.94).

Over his last five full seasons, Ekholm has surpassed the 30-point threshold four times — headlined by a career-high 44 points during the 2018-19 campaign. Add in the fact that he ranks in the 93rd percentile of defensemen (over a three-year weighted average) in even-strength offense and 68th percentile in even-strength defense, and you've got a capable, two-way defenseman who could add some playmaking punch on your blue line while still logging heavy, reliable minutes night in and night out.

You also consider that Ekholm is under contract through the 2021-22 season with an extremely affordable annual cap hit of just $3.75 million, and it won't come as a surprise if multiple Cup contenders are hitting up Nashville GM David Poile nonstop over the next few weeks in an effort to pry the veteran from the Preds.

https://twitter.com/HockeyDaily365/status/1083560004882481157

The cost?

Sure, the Bruins could use a guy like Ekholm — and given his low cost, usage rates and 5v5 playmaking potential, he could very well be the missing piece Boston needs on the blue line.

But what will it cost to get him?

LeBrun noted in his piece that you could draw comparables between Ekholm and a pair of other established blueliners that were dealt with another year remaining on their deals in Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez.

While the Golden Knights were ultimately able to get Martinez from the Kings for both a 2020 and 2021 second-round pick, it seems like Poile and the Preds will want a return similar to the one Toronto coughed up to pry Muzzin out of L.A. — a first-round pick and a pair of prospects (Carl Grundstrom, playing rights to Sean Durzi).

So if you're the Bruins, do you offer a first-round pick once again (which they've dealt in two of the last three seasons) and perhaps a blueliner like Zboril or Vaakanainen (and perhaps another B prospect?) in order to get the deal done? Of course, given that a number of Cup contenders will also likely be in the mix, Boston might have to part ways with even more valuable assets such as a Lauzon in order to put the best offer on the table.

Another thing that could cause the Bruins to second guess a trade is the looming Seattle expansion draft — as acquiring a player with term like Ekholm would further complicate a scenario in which Boston likely has to protect three of McAvoy, Carlo, Grzelcyk and Lauzon from the Kraken later this summer. By adding Ekholm to the mix, it all but guarantees that a talented blueliner will be up for grabs when Seattle comes knocking.

Of course, if Sweeney and the Bruins believe that Ekholm could be the missing piece this team needs to put itself over the top, perhaps dealing for Ekholm and dealing with the headaches associated with the Kraken is worth it — especially if it leads to a Stanley Cup. Add in the fact that even if Boston stands pat at the deadline, it's pretty much a given they're going to lose a solid player to the Kraken (Grzelcyk? Lauzon? Ritchie? Bjork? Frederic?), then perhaps the expansion draft doesn't hinder the B's quite like we thought it might when it comes to going all-in for this year.

Of course, in the coming weeks, we'll be sure to also look at potential trade targets up front for Boston — as is tradition. But don't overlook the need for this club to secure more stability on its blue line before playoff hockey gets underway. And when it comes to viable candidates to fill such a spot, you can't get much better than a guy like Ekholm.

Other Notes

The Bruins will have to wait a year before they can properly honor Willie O'Ree with a full jersey retirement ceremony at (a hopefully packed) TD Garden, but some NHLers are finding other ways to pay tribute to the hockey pioneer on the ice during Black History Month.

This past week, Bauer unveiled custom skates featuring O'Ree's face, number and a quote from his Hockey Hall of Fame induction speech in  2018: "All I needed was the opportunity."

Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane and Florida Panthers forward Anthony Duclair were among those who donned these custom skates this past week — which will be signed and returned to Bauer to be auctioned off at a later date. Proceeds from the auction of this game-used gear will be donated to Black Girl Hockey Club, a non-profit dedicated to uniting Black women in the hockey community.

https://twitter.com/NHLBlackhawks/status/1362211062557380608

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After spurning the Bruins and other Cup contenders in order to join a winning franchise in Buffalo, it looks as though Taylor Hall is interested in potentially working out a long-term deal with the Sabres. Given his pending UFA status, you'd think Buffalo would want to flip him at the deadline for more assets, given that another rebuild seems to be on the way.

It's curious as to why exactly Hall wants to stay, considering that it's looking more and more likely that Jack Eichel is eventually going to want to move on rather than continue to carry this sordid franchise. We've covered some hypothetical Eichel trades before, so don't get your hopes up, B's fans.

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It was a bit of a rough start for Torey Krug in St. Louis, with the Blues handing him multiple D-zone starts out of the gate while trying to re-shuffle their D corps on the fly this season. But as of late, both Krug and Justin Faulk have been absolutely pantsing the competition as a D pairing — with St. Louis holding a 13-4 edge in goals scored during their 172:39 of 5v5 ice time this season.

https://twitter.com/joshhymanNHL/status/1362608761064587282

Krug's fully settled in and racking up points in St. Louis, Zdeno Chara is still logging heavy minutes in Washington and Boston's defense is still a top-five unit through the first quarter of the season. All parties have to be pleased with how things have turned out so far.

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One storyline that has gained traction over the last week has centered on the viability of the Bruins putting themselves in the running for a blockbuster trade for future Hall of Famer Sidney Crosby — with the talk spilling over into sports radio and morphing into hypotheticals over whether or not Boston would ever deal a player like David Pastrnak in return for the 33-year-old Penguins star.

https://twitter.com/emarinofsky/status/1362536574651670530

Given how much attention this discussion is drawing elsewhere off of BSJ, I feel like it'd be a disservice not to at least offer my thoughts on whether trading Pastrnak for Crosby (or any player not named - McDavid? MacKinnon? Maaaaybe Matthews?) is a bad idea or not.

Here it is.

It's a BAD idea.

As you were.

Stats and graphs via Natural Stat TrickHockeyViz and JFreshHockey