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Ekblad determined to take Panthers to higher level

Defenseman 'humbled' after frustrating season, missing playoffs

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

TORONTO -- Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad has plenty of reasons to forget about last season.

Ekblad was injured early in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and had to leave the tournament prematurely. Six months later, a concussion ended his season 10 games early. Very little went right in between. He had an NHL career-low 21 points and a career worst minus-23 rating. The Panthers finished sixth in the Atlantic Division with 81 points.

"It just was a tough year all around," Ekblad said Wednesday after participating in an on-ice session with other NHL players at the Power Edge Pro Camp at Scotiabank Pond.

Except, instead of forgetting about it and moving on, Ekblad instead has been trying to apply the hard lessons he learned this offseason so he can start using them as a catalyst for the rest of his career.

He's 21-years-old and entering the first season of an eight-year, $60 million contract. He's a young veteran now, and he's seen a lot.

"The last year of my rookie contract was by far the year that I learned the most," Ekblad said, referencing last season. "I may have cruised through my first two years a little bit too much. The real work began this summer. I truly believe that and I truly believe I'm the most confident and ready that I have ever been to play the game."

Why? How?

For starters, Ekblad, who said he's 100 percent healthy, has perspective now.

Video: FLA@PHI: Ekblad steals, dances around Giroux for SHG

He came into the League as rookie and the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft and performed well enough with 39 points (12 goals, 27 assists) in 81 games to win the Calder Trophy. The Panthers then finished first in the Atlantic Division in his second season, when he had 36 points (15 goals, 21 assists) in 78 games.

Then came last season. The Panthers went through a coaching change from Gerard Gallant to Tom Rowe (Bob Boughner is their new coach). They missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs by 14 points. Ekblad regressed too.

"That's a season where you really realize how hard it is, how hard this league is, how hard it is to stick around," Ekblad said. "It's easy to take that for granted with the money that we're paid and the opportunities that we get. You have to really humble yourself. Last year humbled me."

So much so that Ekblad, widely considered one of the best young defensemen in the League, said he thinks of himself an average NHL player after last season.

"Meaning, I consider myself here (puts his hand down by stomach), but I have to continue working to get there (raises hand near head)," Ekblad said. "Even though I might be good enough right now, I need to get a lot better."

 

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He named Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks and Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators among the defensemen he thinks are already there, where he wants to get to. But he said this offseason has helped him take a step in the right direction.

"I feel I've made strides in a lot of my game and I've gotten a lot stronger, a lot better shape and confident," Ekblad said. "This league is not a league where you're invincible. You've got to fight hard every day to stay in it no matter how long your deal is and no matter how much you're getting paid. That is something that I learned and it's something I'm going to hold with me dearly to the end of my career. [Last season] is going to hopefully be the humbling experience that takes me to a higher level, takes our whole team to a higher level and gets us in the playoffs and into the [Stanley] Cup conversation."

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