The 6-foot-3, 213-pound 18-year-old from the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League led OHL defensemen with 23 goals and was named the league's best defenseman.
"He's so mature for his age (19 in February)," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said on TSN. "And he fits what we have, with [Aleksandr] Barkov, [Erik] Gudbranson, [Nick] Bjugstad ... these are cornerstones of the franchise, guys you can build around for a long time."
It's the second time in three years Ekblad has been the first pick of a draft. After being granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada as a 15-year-old in March 2011, he was selected by Barrie with the first pick of the 2011 OHL draft.
Ekblad is the first defenseman taken with the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft since the St. Louis Blues selected Erik Johnson in 2006. He's the first Canadian defenseman to go No. 1 since the Ottawa Senators selected Chris Phillips in 1996.
"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," director of NHL Central Scouting Dan Marr said. "He is the best defenseman available and would be projected to vie for an NHL job a lot sooner than most."
With three seasons of junior hockey behind him, Ekblad said he's ready to play in the NHL in 2014-15.
"I go in expecting to make it and believing in being confident in myself," he said. "I'm going to expect to make it and I'm going to make it because I work hard and do the right things."
The Buffalo Sabres selected Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart with the second pick.
The 6-foot-1, 186-pound forward had 36 goals and 105 points, tied for fourth in the Western Hockey League, in 60 games. He had five points in seven games with Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship and was invited to take part in Canada's training camp in Switzerland ahead of the 2014 World Championship.
He said that experience gave him a clue of what life in the NHL will be like and that experience has him believing he can play in the League full-time this season.
"I'm going to be expecting to [make a team]," Reinhart said. "But at the same time hoping for an opportunity. ... I'm confident in my own ability to do that but I know it's not going to be easy."
Reinhart is the fourth member of his family to be chosen in the NHL Draft. His father, Paul Reinhart, was taken by the Atlanta Flames with the 12th pick of the 1979 draft; his oldest brother Max Reinhart was a third-round pick (No. 64) of the Calgary Flames in 2010; another brother, Griffin Reinhart, was taken by the New York Islanders with the fourth pick of the 2012 draft.
"I would compare Reinhart to Adam Oates; he's a very cerebral player who takes what's given to him," Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald said. "He probably has the highest hockey IQ of any player in this draft and he knows where to go with the puck, even before he even gets it."
At No. 3 the Edmonton Oilers selected Prince Albert Raiders center Leon Draisaitl. He is the highest-drafted German-born player in League history; previously it had been Pittsburgh Penguins center Marcel Goc, who was taken by the San Jose Sharks with the 20th pick of the 2001 draft.
Draisaitl said he was looking forward to playing for the Oilers because of the history of the franchise.
"Playing and wearing the same jersey as [Wayne] Gretzky, [Mark] Messier, all those stars, that is a huge honor," Draisaitl said on TSN. "It's a great organization, they have a lot of young, talented guys. I can't wait for training camp."
The 6-foot-1, 208-pound forward had 38 goals and 105 points, tied for fourth in the Western Hockey League, in 64 games. He had six points in six games for Germany at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship, and four points in seven games for Germany at the World Championship. NHL Central Scouting had him as the No. 4 North American skater in its final rankings.
"He's the best prospect I've seen from this draft class at protecting and handling the puck," MacDonald said. "He's very Jaromir Jagr-esque. He protects the puck, makes those button hooks and hits guys coming in late. He'll hold onto that puck until he sees the right play to make. He has a great wrist shot and good snap shot, and can surprise a lot of goalies with it."
At No. 4, the Calgary Flames selected Kingston Frontenacs center Samuel Bennett.
The 6-foot, 178-pound center had 36 goals and 91 points in 57 games in the Ontario Hockey League, including a league-high 25-game point-scoring streak when he had 17 goals and 29 assists. It was the longest scoring streak in the league since Los Angeles Kings forward Tyler Toffoli scored in 25 straight as a member of the Ottawa 67's.
Bennett was voted the top prospect in the Canadian Hockey League and was No. 1 all season in NHL Central Scouting's ranking of the top prospects in North America.
"When we look at Sam Bennett we see a guy who could potentially have a Jonathan Toews-type of career," Marr said.
With the fifth pick, the New York Islanders selected Oshawa Generals left wing Michael Dal Colle.
The 6-2, 182-pound forward had 39 goals and 95 points in 67 OHL games and is No. 5 on Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters.
"He quietly goes about his business," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards said. "Not flashy but always good. He kills penalties and plays the point on the power play. Dal Colle is a versatile guy. He's fluid and capable of scoring big goals. He's going to be a really good pro."
The draft was the culmination of a busy day that included the Vancouver Canucks trading center Ryan Kesler to the Anaheim Ducks for forward Nick Bonino, defenseman Luca Sbisa, the 24th pick in the first round, and a 2014 third-round pick (No. 85). The Canucks then traded that third-round pick to the New York Rangers for forward Derek Dorsett.
The Canucks also traded defenseman Jason Garrison, along with prospect forward Jeff Costello and a seventh-round pick in 2015 to the Tampa Bay Lightning for a 2014 second-round pick (No. 50).
The trades gave the Canucks two picks in the first round (No. 6 and No. 24) and two in the second round (No. 36 and No. 50).Adam Kimelman