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Super 16: Panthers' Ekblad having season for the ages

by Corey Masisak / NHL.com

The Florida Panthers have been amassing young talent for several years, with a rather random Southeast Division title mixed in among four forgettable seasons.

Their misfortune in 2013-14 led to the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, and it might finally be time to say the Panthers are done picking high in the draft because of Aaron Ekblad. Not only has Ekblad held his own as an 18-year-old defenseman in the NHL, he's thrived and been a key reason why Florida has shrugged aside some early-season offensive woes and looks primed for a run at a Stanley Cup Playoff berth.

Ekblad could be in the midst of a historic season for a defenseman of his age. Very few defensemen stick in the NHL at 18, and even fewer play most of their rookie season before celebrating a 19th birthday.

If he continues to collect points at his current pace, Ekblad will soon have the third-most points in NHL history by a defenseman who remained 18 through at least Feb. 1, and he'll have a chance to pass Bobby Orr for second.

Player Year Games played Points Points/game
Phil Housley 1982-83 77 66 0.86
Bobby Orr 1966-67 61 41 0.67
Jim Benning 1981-82 74 31 0.42
Doug Bodger 1984-85 65 31 0.48
Petr Svoboda 1984-85 73 31 0.42
Rick Hampton 1974-75 78 25 0.32
Scott Stevens 1982-83 77 25 0.32
Aaron Ekblad 2014-15 37 22 0.59
Roman Hamrlik 1992-93 67 21 0.31
Al Iafrate 1984-85 68 21 0.31

The top 10 are in the accompanying table. Notice most of the names on that list came from the early-1980s juiced puck era. If the birthday restriction was pushed to say, December, others such as Ray Bourque and Cam Fowler would join this list but Ekblad would still have a chance to finish among the best.

The second table shows every first-year defenseman of the past 20 years aged 23 or younger (to cut out some older players who were rookies in name only). Ekblad has a chance to finish among the most prolific rookie defensemen of the past two decades, a pretty remarkable feat considering how offense has declined in recent years (compared to say, 2005-06 when three guys on this list were rookies) and because of Florida's trouble scoring goals.

Player Year Games played Points Points/game
Dion Phaneuf 2005-06 82 49 0.60
Kevin Shattenkirk 2010-11 72 43 0.60
Bryan Berard 1996-97 82 48 0.59
Tyler Myers 2009-10 82 48 0.59
Aaron Ekblad 2014-15 37 22 0.59
Janne Niinimaa 1996-97 77 44 0.57
Ryan Whitney 2005-06 68 38 0.56
Justin Schultz 2012-13 48 27 0.56
Cam Fowler 2010-11 76 40 0.56
Keith Ballard 2005-06 82 39 0.53

There is more reason to believe in Ekblad's excellence, and consider him a top challenger for the Calder Trophy along with Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators and Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames. Ekblad is playing over 22 minutes per game next to one of the most underrated defenseman in the League in Brian Campbell, and they have thrived together.

There are 153 defensemen who have logged at least 400 minutes at even strength so far this season. Ekblad is 26th among them in Corsi-for percentage at 53.4 percent. He is in the top 40 in most shot attempts for per 60 minutes and fewest shot attempts against per 60 minutes.

Sure, he and Campbell see a lot of offensive-zone faceoffs, but those numbers would be fantastic for a 21-year-old with 120 NHL games of experience, let alone a guy who doesn't turn 19 for another month.

Roberto Luongo has helped the Panthers tremendously. Adding Willie Mitchell and giving Dmitry Kulikov time to develop has been a boon as well. Nick Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov are going to be a wonderful 1-2 punch at center.

Ekblad, though, looks like something truly special at this point. Some defensemen who played a lot at 18 or 19 have fizzled, but Ekblad has been consistently earning rave reviews and the numbers back it up.

DISCLAIMER: While the Super 16 is NHL.com's weekly power rankings, it focuses more on the "power" than the "rankings" when determining the order. It's not always going to look like the League standings and likely will take more of a long view than a short one. If two teams are close the tiebreaker almost always is this: If the two teams started a seven-game series right now, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information. All rankings, records and statistics are through the games played Wednesday night.

1. Chicago Blackhawks (26-12-2)

The Blackhawks had 83 shot attempts at even strength Tuesday against the Colorado Avalanche. That's the second-most they've had in a game since October 2005 when counting missed shots and blocked shots began. The game with the most was Game 1 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. That game went into a third overtime.

MUST READ: Sam Fels of The Committed Indian writes about some worrying numbers for defenseman Johnny Oduya.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning (26-12-4)

Losing Radko Gudas doesn't help, but it might afford a chance to Mark Barberio, who has better puck possession numbers but in more offensively-advantageous situations. Can Barberio handle tougher minutes, or does Nikita Nesterov get a chance to play regularly? A fifth-round pick in 2011, Nesterov was the second Nikita selected in that draft and the other (Nikita Kucherov) has turned out pretty well.

MUST READ: Arpon Basu writes about Kucherov's sizzling line for NHL.com.

3. St. Louis Blues (24-13-3)

On Dec. 1, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Jori Lehtera each had at least 21 points and David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Alex Steen, the top line for much of last season, had combined for 32. That trio has combined for 35 in the past five weeks, and real scoring depth plus a healthy Brian Elliott makes the Blues a very scary bunch.

MUST READ: Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch writes about how the top line has found its mojo again.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins (24-10-6)

In David Perron's seven seasons where he has played at least 39 games, he's been a positive possession player relative to his team's average in six of them. Check the CorsiRel numbers on all of Jim Rutherford's other additions since he took over (Christian Ehrhoff, Blake Comeau, Steve Downie, Rob Klinkhammer, etc.). That sure looks like a pattern.

MUST READ: Jesse Marshall of The Pensblog writes about the Penguins and scoring chances, using a new set of data created at www.war-on-ice.com.

5. Anaheim Ducks (26-9-6)

The Ducks win a lot of close games. Maybe their luck has to be considered something of a skill, like Ryan Lambert of Yahoo Sports suggests. Maybe the Ducks are headed for a swan dive, as Rob Vollman of ESPN.com suggests.

MUST READ: The Ducks will retire Teemu Selanne's number Sunday, so here is one of the all-time greats, Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated, writing about one of the all-time greats.

6. Nashville Predators (26-9-4)

There are 51 players in the NHL with at least 30 points. One of them moved to a different organization this past offseason. That would be Mike Ribeiro, who has 35 points to lead all offseason additions. Ryan Kesler, Radim Vrbata and Patric Hornqvist all have 29 points.

MUST READ: Clare Austin of Puckology writes about how an expected dip in Pekka Rinne's save percentage will affect Nashville's PDO (and why it shouldn't be a reason to panic).

7. New York Islanders (26-13-1)

Speaking of newcomers, Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk continue to look like two of the best moves of the, well, before the regular season started. Leddy and Boychuk have the top Corsi-for percentages of any defensemen that changed addresses and have played at least 400 minutes at even strength. They have the top two Fenwick-for percentages, each at better than 60 percent.

The accompanying graph details the even strength CF% for the top 20 defensemen that changed teams between June and opening night. One day made a pretty big difference for the Islanders this season.

MUST READ: Michael Willhoft of Lighthouse Hockey writes about how New York's depth has driven the team's improvement.

8. San Jose Sharks (22-14-5)

Joe Thornton's consecutive games streak recently ended, but there is more to love about his durability. He leads the NHL in games played since the start of the 2005-06 season with 736, which is one more than Jay Bouwmeester and two more than Antoine Vermette. He's also second in even-strength assists per 60 minutes, just behind Henrik Sedin, and 13th in Corsi-for percentage among players with at least 400 games played.

MUST READ: Kevin Kurz of CSN Bay Area writes about how a lack of goals at even strength is a concern.

9. Detroit Red Wings (22-10-9)

Not only do the Red Wings lead the League in fewest shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes at even strength (45.0), they have been even better at suppressing them since Dec. 1 (42.8). They've also upped their output at the other end slightly.

MUST READ: Helene St. James of the Detroit Free-Press writes about how Kyle Quincey has enjoyed his time next to Danny DeKeyser.

10. Los Angeles Kings (19-12-9)

Speaking of picking up the pace since Dec. 1, the Kings have controlled more than 59 percent of the shot attempts since then and after a slow start in the puck possession department are now second to Chicago in Corsi-for percentage and fourth in Fenwick-for percentage. Los Angeles also has a bushel of home games coming up, in case anyone wants to look smart and predict a January surge by the champs.

MUST READ: Andrew Leafman of Jewels From The Crown writes about how the Kings road struggles are not something to worry about.

11. Winnipeg Jets (20-13-7)

Forsberg, Ekblad and Gaudreau are definitely the top three Calder candidates at this point, but Michael Hutchinson is going to have a chance to elbow into that discussion if Paul Maurice plays him more in the second half of the season. That .942 even-strength save percentage is impressive, but Hutchinson probably needs 28-30 starts in the final 42 games for voters to not discount his resume because of so few games played. If he ended up with 45 games played and a .925-plus save percentage, he'd have a real case.

Only five goalies have played at least 20 games and posted a .925 or better save percentage in one of their first two seasons (no minimum of games, so this is technically Hutchinson's second year for this exercise): Niklas Backstrom, Jonas Hiller, Martin Gerber, Cam Talbot and David Aebischer.

MUST READ: Garret Hohl of Arctic Ice Hockey writes about how great Dustin Byfuglien has been since returning to the defense corps.

12. Washington Capitals (21-11-7)

Earlier in the season, the Capitals were playing very well but for a combination of bad luck and goaltending lapses. Braden Holtby has been excellent of late, and Washington has gone 36 days with one regulation defeat. Six of its next eight games are against teams not on this list.

MUST READ: Muneeb Alam of Japers' Rink writes about how the Capitals have improved when the best players from each side are on the ice.

13. Montreal Canadiens (26-12-2)

The Canadiens haven't controlled 50 percent of the shot attempts at even strength in a game since Dec. 9. Montreal's Corsi-for percentage since Dec. 10 is 42.4 percent. That is better than Buffalo and Toronto and … that's it. The Canadiens PDO during this run is 107.5. Remember what happened after Toronto's PDO wave crested last month?

MUST READ: Dave Stubbs of the Montreal Gazette writes about how Max Pacioretty is earning more attention from top defensive players this season.

14. New York Rangers (22-11-4)

The Rangers weren't in danger of losing a year of control with Anthony Duclair, so it is hard to fault them for how they handled his first half of 2014-15. They had a need for a skilled player at the NHL level during training camp, and he earned his place. The team is healthier now, so letting him build off his 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship performance by playing a lot and racking up goals back in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League could benefit his long-term growth more than spending four months in an out of the lineup or in low-leverage situations with the Rangers.

MUST READ: Larry Brooks of the New York Post writes about two other young players the Rangers do need moving forward this season.

15. Vancouver Canucks (23-12-3)

The Canucks were above 50 percent in shot attempts at even strength until Nov. 20, and have been at 47.5 percent since. That day was the last time Dan Hamhuis played in a game for the Canucks. Four of the regulars on the defense corps (Sbisa, Kevin Bieksa, Ryan Stanton and Yannick Weber are all below 47 percent individually.

MUST READ: Ed Willes of the Vancouver Province writes that this Canucks team is greater than the sum of its parts.

16. Florida Panthers (17-11-9)

Bjugstad is tied for eighth among Americans in goals this season with another young breakout performer, Brock Nelson of the Islanders. Bjugstad is tied for sixth in even-strength goals.

MUST READ: Kevin Woodley chats with an old friend about his return to Vancouver for NHL.com.

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