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Ekblad up and down for Panthers in Hockeyville loss to Canadiens

Defenseman shows all sides in first preseason game under Quenneville

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

BATHURST, New Brunswick -- Aaron Ekblad's roller-coaster game at Kraft Hockeyville Canada 2019 was a lot like his NHL career to date.

The Florida Panthers defenseman had two assists, took two minor penalties and was on the ice for six of the seven goals in a 4-3 preseason loss to the Montreal Canadiens at K.C. Irving Centre on Wednesday.

From the Panthers' box, general manager Dale Tallon seemed to be either grinning or grimacing with each shift Ekblad played. Such is the glass-half-empty, glass-half full nature of the 23-year-old.

"I'd like to see him play a little more naturally," Tallon said. "Right now he's thinking the game a lot. Right now he's trying to be perfect. Just play more. Just let it be free, more free in his thought process. You could see in the first period he was thinking, in the second period he was free and easy. Just play.

"It's OK to make a mistake. You'll make numerous mistakes. Other teams are going to make good plays against you. So you have to make more fluid decisions."

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One of those mistakes came on the game-winning shorthanded goal by Canadiens forward Alex Belzile. Ekblad mistimed his dive trying to break up a 2-on-1 and ended up lying on his belly while Belzile deked around him before scoring with 6:03 left in the third period.

"You've got a power play at that stage, it was in your control," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. "I think last year, those are the type of goals you've got to prevent when the games are on the line at that stage. Regular-season games, those are a valuable one or two points."

Quenneville didn't point the finger at Ekblad, nor should he. There was plenty of blame to go around.

What Tallon hopes is that the coach, who was hired April 8 to replace Bob Boughner, can help Ekblad work the kinks out of his game and elevate him to a new level.

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"I hope he has a big impact on him," Tallon said. "And I hope he listens to him and pays attention to the details that [Joel] demands of his players and are so important: to be accountable and to be committed to every shift of every game. And I think it'll be a big influence on our young defensemen."

Quenneville is the fourth coach in a five-year span for Ekblad, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. He played for Gerard Gallant (2014-16), Tom Rowe (2016-17) and Boughner; each had a different system, a different philosophy, a different take on how a defenseman should play.

Ekblad has 171 points (66 goals, 105 assists) in his 391 NHL games, but the consistency hasn't been there, either on the ice or behind the bench. He's banking that Quenneville's arrival will change that.

"It'll be nice to have some stability here moving forward, obviously with [Joel] here and the coaching staff," Ekblad said. "But we have to perform under them, right? It's on us as players to perform. In the past we haven't. Now, with some stability, we hope we can learn some things and take the next step as a team and as individuals.

"Obviously you want to be perfect. You don't want to make mistakes. But you're going to make them. This is the NHL and you're going to make them. This is where we iron out stuff, here in the preseason. Start building power play, penalty killing, all that stuff, chemistry with partners.

"He's a great coach, and I like the pace he has us playing with."

Quenneville coached the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, those teams had defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook as their backbone. Ekblad isn't the same player, but Quenneville said his potential is just as high in certain areas.

"I always find that with defensemen, the best way to gauge their performance is consistency and predictability," Quenneville said. "There's offensive defensemen in the game and you look at the way they defend, everybody's got a different predictability defending. He's got a little bit of both in his game that are very effective. I like how he moves, positionally aware. I think what we're looking for is how we're killing plays, how we're in tight areas controlling checks in situations.

"He's got a lot of attributes that can enhance his game and take him to the next level."

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