Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad, No. 2 on NHL Central Scouting's list of the top North American skaters eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft, on Thursday was named Defenseman of the Year in the Ontario Hockey League.
Many NHL scouts project the 6-foot-3, 216-pound right-handed shot to be the first defenseman taken in the first round of the draft at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on June 27.
Ekblad, who finished with career highs in goals (23) power-play goals (16), assists (30), points (53) and penalty minutes (91) in his third OHL season, earned first-place finishes for best shot, hardest shot, best offensive defenseman and best defensive defenseman in the Eastern Conference of the OHL this season. The captain of the Colts was also voted second in the category of best penalty killer.
"I am always hesitant to label as a sure thing any young athlete as they have enough pressure on them as it is, but I would describe Ekblad as one of the most solid NHL prospects you will find in this year's draft class," NHL director of NHL Central Scouting Dan Marr told NHL.com. "He is the best defenseman available and would be projected to vie for an NHL job a lot sooner than most."
Ekblad acknowledged he wants NHL scouts and general managers to know he not only brings a strong defensive game but the necessary offensive tools required of today's NHL defenseman.
"I think GMs are also looking for a guy who will jump into the rush and score goals, so versatility is a big thing," Ekblad said. "I'm sure that's what they look for; every so often you have to throw your weight around too. But obviously being steady and knowing your position is important."
Having that knowledge was expected after being granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada to be eligible for the 2011 Ontario Hockey League priority selection draft as a 15-year-old, a year younger than the standard age of 16.
"There's a ton of pressure," Ekblad said. "There's media pressure, fan pressure and all kinds of pressure that comes with that status. But I believe pressure is what you make of it."
Pressure is also something one feels when not prepared. Make no mistake, Ekblad has been preparing for his NHL draft year ever since he first laced on skates.
"When I first entered the league, I just wanted to turn that pressure into motivation and use it to my advantage to play well every day," Ekblad said.
He did. After being selected by the Colts with the No. 1 pick in 2011, Ekblad would record 10 goals and 29 points in 63 games that first year en route to earning OHL Rookie of the Year honors and being named to the OHL All-Rookie Team.
"Aaron was used on the top defensive pair in addition to both the power-play and penalty-killing units," NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards said. "He fit in very well and proved he deserved to be in the league as an underage player."
Ekblad has 40 goals, 116 points, 189 penalty minutes and a plus-31 rating in 175 career regular season games for the Colts. He represented Canada at the 2014 World Junior Championship in Sweden, and impressed the coaching staff to the point he was a top-four defenseman for his country and finished with one goal and two points in seven games.
"He's smart and an excellent all-around skater for his size," Marr said. "He handles and distributes the puck very well in all zones, passes with authority and possesses an accurate point shot. He's highly consistent and displays strong leadership ability."
Barrie forward Brendan Lemieux, No. 28 on Central Scouting's final list, knows first-hand how intense and dedicated Ekblad is on and off the ice.
"He was my roommate in Barrie, so I know him inside and out," Lemieux said. "He has an incredible work ethic. He has a knack for putting pucks in the net along with shutting guys down on defense. He is truly a gifted player and I'm fortunate to have been around a guy like him."