Boston Bruins

Mar 15, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; Nashville Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm (14) is congratulated after scoring a goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Trade rumor season is officially here for the Bruins, who are connected to Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm, the top prize of the 2021 deadline season, according to the latest report from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.

“We’re a month away from the deadline, but the poker game is underway with the Predators demanding a high price. Boston and Winnipeg are there. I always assume there are others,” Friedman wrote in his latest ’31 Thoughts’ column.

Now in his eighth season as a full-time NHLer, the 30-year-old Ekholm has started his 2021 season with five goals and 12 points in 22 games for the Preds, and his 22:18 nightly time on ice is the third-most among all Nashville skaters. Ekholm is also signed beyond through next season, and at an affordable $3.75 million cap hit, too.

In other words, it’s not hard to see why the left-shot Ekholm is in demand.

And why the Preds want a ransom in return for him.

“Nashville’s made it clear the Los Angeles-Toronto Muzzin deal is the template for Ekholm,” Friedman noted.

Referencing the Leafs’ 2019 trade for then-King Jake Muzzin, the price paid by Toronto included a first-round pick in 2019, a player drafted with a second-round pick the previous season (defenseman Sean Durzi, No. 52 overall in 2018), and AHL forward (and 2016 second-round pick) Carl Grundstrom, who has since emerged as a regular for the Kings.

Just guessing here, but a Bruins version of that would probably look something like a first-round pick, top defensive prospect Urho Vaakanainen or top offensive prospect Jack Studnicka, and another a prospect either in the pro or still in the college ranks. Whether or not Ekholm is truly worth that price for the Bruins depends on the exact cost, obviously, but it’s definitely a lot. Especially when considering that the Bruins have traded their first-round pick in two of last three years, and that their prospect cupboard is considered barer than most, at least in terms of high-ceiling prospects.

It would, however, be in line with the Bruins’ previous pursuits this year, with the team in the hunt for a trade for Coyotes captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson before the OEL-imposed deadline passed and showing interest in free agent Ben Hutton before he signed with the Ducks before the start of the 2021 season. Now, those explorations were made before Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril emerged as legitimate NHL players, but the Bruins have taken a pounding on defense of late, and some questions about the health of both Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller may have the B’s rethinking their needs.

But there’s also the expansion ‘problem’ that comes with trading a bevy of assets for Ekholm, as the fact that his contract that goes beyond 2021 could see the Bruins to lose him for nothing if left unprotected, or open the door for Seattle to scoop up somebody like Lauzon, Zboril, or first unit power-play quarterback Matt Grzelcyk from the Bruins if Ekholm is the third defender protected by the Bruins behind Carlo and Charlie McAvoy.

The Bruins may also have bigger needs with their offense struggling to produce at five-on-five once again — the Bruins head to Buffalo ranked 28th in five-on-five scoring and 29th in five-on-five shooting percentage — and with players such as the Sabres’ Taylor Hall, New Jersey’s Kyle Palmieri, and Nashville’s Filip Forsberg potentially on the block.

The 2021 NHL trade deadline is set for Apr. 12.