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Panthers rookie Ekblad deserving of Calder Trophy

by Mike G. Morreale / NHL.com

With the 2014-15 season complete, NHL.com looks at some of the biggest storylines and award contenders.

What appeared to be a one-horse race early in the season turned into anything but down the stretch in the battle for the Calder Memorial Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.

In the end, it was hard to ignore the accomplishments of Aaron Ekblad, the youngest defenseman in the League. The native of Windsor, Ontario, had one of the best rookie season by an 18-year-old defenseman in NHL history, beginning his career four months after being chosen No. 1 in the 2014 NHL Draft by the Florida Panthers.

Nashville Predators center Filip Forsberg was the early favorite. The 20-year-old looked to be the perfect fit for new coach Peter Laviolette, who stressed offense and puck possession. He was ultimately overtaken in the rookie scoring race by Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau, 21, who defied the odds at 5-foot-9, 150 pounds.

With about 35 games remaining in the regular season, Ottawa Senators right wing Mark Stone began his ascent up the rookie leaderboard. The 22-year-old closed out the regular season on a nine-game point streak (eight goals, 13 points). Stone, Gaudreau and Forsberg each played a significant role in helping their teams qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Panthers did not qualify, but were in the hunt for much of the season, and the impact Ekblad had was undeniable. His 39 points were the third-most points in NHL history by a defender who remained 18 years old through at least Feb. 1, finishing behind Bobby Orr (1966-67, 41 points) and Phil Housley (1982-83, 66 points).

What was most impressive about the teenager was his ability to expect and not fear that mistakes could happen. He learned from them while playing tough minutes on the blue line for a rebuilding franchise.

Ekblad, who was a late addition to the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game and ended up having four points, finished first among Panthers defensemen in shots on goal (170) and shooting percentage (7.1 percent), and was second in shot attempts percentage (SAT%) at 53.80 percent and primary assists (10).

"There was not a lot of panic in his game and, in general, the game is about puck possession but as a young defenseman there's that tendency to throw the puck away a little and not want to make mistakes," MSG Network hockey analyst and former New Jersey Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko said. "Ekblad was a player that never seemed like he was afraid of making a mistake; he was composed enough to make a play every time."

Supporting our belief that Ekblad should be considered the first defenseman to win the Calder Trophy in five years (Tyler Myers, Buffalo Sabres, 2010) is the fact he led all rookie defensemen in shots, and fewest shot attempts against per 60 minutes (38.04), while also finishing second in hits (109), blocked shots (80) and fourth in average ice time per game (21:48). Ekblad was No. 6 on NHL.com's Top 60 prospects ranking in September.

"He was an elite-status player coming into junior hockey as a 15-year-old kid so he was always playing up a level and he carried it on," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. "We didn't expect him to be playing the way he has been playing for us. We thought he'd be a good player but I never expected him to be this good, this early."

Ekblad's ability to handle tough situations at such a young age was probably the most impressive part of his game.

"It was the way he carried himself and handled himself out there," Gallant said. "For a kid his age at this level, that was the biggest thing that stood out for me. He read plays in the defensive zone, anticipated, and had that knack for breaking up plays."

Orr, Ekblad's agent, was proud of how his client performed.

"Florida did a wonderful job with the way they used him," Orr said. "He averaged a lot of minutes and his offense picked up as the season went on. He's worked hard and answered a lot of questions after training camp. This kid played unbelievable hockey. He's a smart player."

FINALISTS

Johnny Gaudreau
Left Wing - CGY
GOALS: 24 | ASST: 40 | PTS: 64
SOG: 167 | +/-: 11
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames -- The New Jersey native really picked up the pace down the stretch when the Flames were in the hunt for a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He ranked first among rookies in assists (40), power-play goals (eight) and power-play points (21), and was tied for first in points (64), and was second in takeaways (67). He found much success on the top line alongside Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler, finishing first in average time among rookie forwards (17:43). Gaudreau was No. 26 on NHL.com's Top 60 prospects list.

"This guy brings the entire package; small package, big game," Flames coach Bob Hartley told The Globe and Mail. "He's just focused on everything he does, whether it's preparing his stick, or working in the gym. I've seen an unbelievable progression in every part of his game because he wanted it.

"I remember this summer, at my hockey camp, I had dinner with him and I told him, 'Johnny, we're going to give you every opportunity to make the team.' He looked back at me and said, 'That’s all I want.' And he took charge of the rest."

Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators -- It was an incredible finish for the Manitoba native, who extended

Mark Stone
Right Wing - OTT
GOALS: 26 | ASST: 38 | PTS: 64
SOG: 157 | +/-: 21
his regular season-ending nine-game point streak with two goals in a 3-1 victory April 11 against the Philadelphia Flyers to help the Senators secure a berth into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Stone, a sixth-round pick (No. 178) in the 2010 NHL Draft, scored 14 goals and 35 points in the final 31 regular-season games to finish tied with Gaudreau for the rookie scoring lead (64 points). He led all rookies with 98 takeaways, a plus-21 rating and a 16.6 shooting percentage among players with at least 50 games played. His 26 goals matched the Calder Trophy-winning season of Daniel Alfredsson in 1995-96 and his 64 points rank second all-time among Senators rookies behind Alexei Yashin (79 points, 1993-94). He averaged 17:01 of ice time, and formed good chemistry on right wing with center Kyle Turris and left wing Clarke MacArthur.

"He was in the zone; like a pitcher with a whole assortment of pitches," Senators coach Dave Cameron told TSN Radio 1200 in Ottawa. "He can beat you and hurt you in a lot of ways whether it's stripping the puck, shooting it by you, finding an open man or finding a redirect with his stick. He just has so many weapons right now, and on top of that his work ethic and hockey IQ are great. He, Turris and [MacArthur] have fit in really well on that line. They've been the engine that's been driving us."

Also in the mix: Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators; John Klingberg, Dallas Stars; Michael Hutchinson, Winnipeg Jets

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