Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad believes it isn't easy finding a player who takes great pride in a strong defensive game in this day and age of high-octane offense.
So he wants NHL scouts and general managers to know not only can he bring that style of game, but his versatility on the back end has also enabled him to expand his hockey repertoire.
"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 told NHL.com. "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 is expected of the 6-foot-3.5, 216-pound right-handed shot 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. That's 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."
An injury-plagued 2012-13 campaign limited Ekblad to 54 regular-season games, but he still managed seven goals, 34 points and a plus-29 rating. He'd make up for lost time in the OHL playoffs, finishing second among defensemen in playoff scoring with 17 points (seven goals), along with a plus-11 rating, in 22 games. The Colts would ultimately drop a thrilling seven-game series to the London Knights in the championship round.
"I want to be a point-per-game player and have a high plus-minus [in 2013-14]," Ekblad said. "I'm not sure exactly how many points or how high a plus-minus I want, but the bottom line is I want to take this Barrie Colts team to a championship. We've gotten close, but to have that OHL Cup and Memorial Cup in your hands would be a special feeling.
"And I want to be the captain of the team when that happens."
Ekblad has nine goals, including six power-play goals, 23 points and a minus-4 rating for Barrie (14-10-3) this season. One of eight defensemen invited to Canada's National Junior Team selection camp Dec. 12-15, he is certainly hoping to raise some eyebrows and earn a roster spot for his country at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship in Sweden.
"Ever since I was a little kid, I was always watching the [WJC] and always wishing I was there," Ekblad told The Barrie Examiner. "Obviously, this is just an opportunity and I have to take advantage of this opportunity and prove that I am a guy they want to have there."
In September, Barrie coach Dale Hawerchuk named Ekblad team captain.
"Aaron showed great leadership here the previous two seasons and early on this year," Hawerchuk said at the time. "We felt he was our best candidate [for captain]. Aaron competes at such a high level on and off the ice and we hope everyone follows suit."
There's little doubt whichever team takes Ekblad in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft in June will have also taken his leadership skills into account. He captained Canada to the 2013 Under-18 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka title this past summer.
"Prior to the Hlinka final against the United States, I remember the room being really quiet," Ekblad said. "The guys were focused on beating the U.S. I didn't have to say much; I just wanted to keep the dressing room calm and relaxed. That was what we did and ended up winning."
He was also captain of Team Ontario at the 2013 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and finished as the second-highest scoring defenseman at the tournament with six points (two goals, four assists).
"I lead more by example and come to the rink with a willingness to learn and listen to the coaches," Ekblad said. "Being a third-year guy [in the OHL], I feel most will look at me and say, 'He's buying in and doing it so I'm going to do the same thing.' I want others to see my dedication and passion, and hopefully they'll see that it's working and helping us succeed."
Ekblad is an A-rated prospect on NHL Central Scouting's players to watch list for November and many believe he could be among the top three players selected at the draft in Philadelphia.
"He has a hard, accurate shot and shows a lot of poise and confidence," Edwards said. "He is physically strong and uses his size and strength very well. He will not back down when challenged and moves the puck well with hard, accurate passes."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL
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