No one on the Florida Panthers saw more ice time than Aaron Ekblad this season.
Whether he was lined up alongside Keith Yandle or Mike Matheson on the team's top-pairing, the 23-year-old defenseman was faced with the tough task of shutting down opposing team's best players each and every game throughout an admittedly up and down 2018-19 campaign.
There were good games and bad games, sequences he dominated and others he'd like back, but with every shift he also gained invaluable experience. And with each minute of his team-leading and career-high 1,938:49 of ice time, he soaked in as much information as he could.
"I am trying to build on playing against top lines and learning what guys are doing night in and night out," said Ekblad, who finished with 13 goals, 24 assists, 88 blocked shots and a career-best 114 hits. "You have to be a student of the game and figure out what is working for guys and what they are going to try and do that night.
"As a defenseman you have to be able to bounce back quick. You're going to get beat sometimes -- it happens. These players are making highlight reel plays night in and night out. You're on the losing side of it being the one having to react to different plays. So it's all about reading situations and reading plays."
While the defensive side of the game is a never-ending lesson for any blueliner, Ekblad seems to have figured out everything there is to know on the offensive side of the puck. One of the top-scoring rearguards this season, his 13 goals placed him tied for 13th among NHL defensemen.
A model of goal-scoring efficiency ever since he entered the league, the former Calder Trophy winner also became just the 13th defenseman to ever score 10-plus goals in each of his first five NHL seasons, joining an exclusive club that features the likes of Bobby Orr and Denis Potvin.
Ekblad and Potvin are also the only D-men selected first overall to achieve that impressive feat.
"The fact that he is only 23, it's crazy what he can do offensively and defensively," Yandle said of Ekblad, who was taken by the Panthers with the top pick in the 2014 draft. "He is an intense guy too. He plays hard minutes and he is a guy that is going to do that for a long time here."
In the midst of all that lamp lighting, Ekblad ended up making history along the way. By scoring the 62nd goal of his career in a 4-2 win over the Nashville Predators on Jan. 19, he moved past Robert Svehla's previous mark of 61 for the most goals by a defenseman in franchise history.
Helping Ekblad reach these new statistical and developmental heights was the fact that he was able to remain healthy and on the ice for the entire season, locking down his second straight 82-game campaign after various injuries had limited him to just 68 appearances back in 2016-17.
"It's confidence," Ekblad said. "I think this year and last year, I found a way to endure through the smaller injuries and be a more complete player and be there for my team all 82 games."
With the arrival of Joel Quenneville, Ekblad said he's "going to be a sponge and learn as much as I possibly can" from the three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach. During his incredible 10-year tenure with the Chicago Blackhawks, Quenneville - better known as "Coach Q" - succeeded in helping develop a wealth of talented defensemen, including Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
Under Coach Q, Ekblad believes he and Matheson can be a similar one-two punch on defense.
"I am going to try and pick Quenneville's brain about him and Keith and Seabrook and how me and Matty can step into that role," said Ekblad, who spent most of the second half of the season paired with Matheson. "It's something that ever since I have been drafted by Dale [Panthers GM Dale Tallon] has been kind of a pairing and thought I've had in my mind. This summer is going to be how me and Matty can take that next step in being an elite pairing."
In terms of entering the offensive zone, opposing teams struggled when Ekblad was on the ice. According to the work of analytics writer Sean Tierney, Ekblad helped break up 24.19 percent of zone entries at 5-on-5 play - the highest success rate among all qualified NHL defensemen. This is especially impressive given the fact he faced opposing team's top lines on most nights.
Check out the "Controlling the Blue Line" chart below to see just how much Ekblad stands out.
Ekblad made history and earned first-star honors when he posted a goal and an assist to help lead the Panthers to a 4-2 win over the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena on Jan. 19. Lighting the lamp on the power play to break the ice and make it a 1-0 game at 4:05 of the first period, Ekblad tallied the 62nd goal of his NHL career, breaking a tie with Robert Svehla for the most goals by a defenseman in franchise history. He has since pushed that record to 66 goals.
Video: FLA@NSH: Ekblad sets club record with power-play goal
"Happy to get one on the power play," said Ekblad, who despite manning the second unit finished tied for sixth among all NHL defenseman with five power-play goals this season.
In addition to his two points, Ekblad also notched three shots, three hits and a takeaway while logging a team-high 26:00 of ice time. Of those minutes, 4:25 came on the penalty kill, where the Panthers succeeding in stifling all four of Nashville's opportunities with the man advantage.
GOAL OF THE YEAR
You can't take your eyes off Ekblad in overtime.
Just 26 seconds into the extra frame, Ekblad whipped a shot on net from inside the right circle that somehow managed to slip through the goaltender's pads and trickle right across the line to lift the Panthers to a 4-3 overtime win over the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center on Feb. 25.
Video: FLA@COL: Ekblad pots Hoffman's pass for OT winner
In securing the victory, Ekblad also helped Roberto Luongo notch the 485th win of his career, which broke a tie with Ed Belfour for third place on the NHL's all-time wins list by a goaltender.
"That's a huge accomplishment and it's great to be a part of it," Ekblad said of the milestone.