After all, he certainly was playing like one of the top defensemen in the league prior to having his season come to an abrupt end on March 28. At the time, he was not only averaging more than 25 minutes of ice time per game, but also sat second among NHL blueliners in goals (11).
And even though MacKenzie Weegar did a spectacular job after stepping into Ekblad's sizable shoes following the injury, there's no doubt the Panthers missed having their No. 1 defenseman.
"He was having a tremendous year," Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau said shortly after Ekblad sustained his lower-body injury in Dallas. "He was always on the ice, playing 25-26 minutes every night. … He wants to be there, be in the room. He's a great leader."
But rather than dwelling on what could've been, let's focus on what was.
Flourishing during his second season working within head coach Joel Quenneville's pace and possession-driven system, Ekblad finished with 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in 35 games played, while also registering 101 shots on goal, 27 blocked shots, 24 hits and 11 takeaways.
One of the top defenders in the league when it comes to denying zone entries, his possession numbers also popped. Able to get pucks out of the defensive zone and going the other direction in a hurry, he compiled a career-high 54.04 CF% at 5-on-5, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
That number becomes even more impressive when you take into account the fact that Ekblad, who formed a potent pairing with Weegar, started just 46.45% of his shifts in the offensive zone.
"I think he was great this year," Quenneville said of Ekblad. "He had so many games where he was dominant defensively, but his offensive contribution, joining the attack down, added a different dimension to our power play, significant minutes, matchups, controlling the outcomes of games. You couldn't ask for anything more. … He stepped up this year in his development."
As Quenneville noted, Ekblad's contributions on the power play really stuck out.
After spending last season on the team's second unit, he was promoted to the top unit early on this season. Immediately, the goals started to flow like water. With his patented one-timer giving opposing goaltender's nightmares, he notched six goals and five assists on the man advantage.
"It's a little bit different playing on that flank on the power play, but I love it," Ekblad said of his new role earlier in the season. "It's a fun place to be and you get to handle the puck. … I'm happy with the way things are going and just going to try and build on it and continue building."
Despite his injury, it's clear that Ekblad, who is still only 25 years old despite having seven seasons of NHL experience under his belt, is still building up every single aspect of his game.
Already ramping up his rehab as he prepares to pick up where he left off during the upcoming 2021-22 campaign, the dynamic defenseman is poised to take yet another big step forward.
"He has time to get himself more than ready for the start of next year," Quenneville said of Ekblad's recovery timetable heading into the summer. "That's what we're looking forward to."
Ekblad was nothing short of a workhorse this season.
Playing an integral role in all situations, he led the Panthers and ranked sixth among all NHL defensemen in average ice time per game (25:05). A fixture on both special teams units, he averaged a career-high 3:53 per game on the power play as well as 2:31 on the penalty kill.
Of the 35 games he appeared in, he skated more than 25 minutes in a whopping 22 of them, including a season-high 29:59 during a 5-4 overtime win against the Blue Jackets on March 11. In 67 games during the 2019-20 campaign, Ekblad surpassed 25 minutes just 15 times.
Quenneville said Ekblad had "the magic touch" during this game.
Netting a pair of goals on the power play - including the game-winner - to go along with two assists, he matched a career-high with four points during a 5-4 win in Nashville on March 4.
Making a bit of history, Ekblad's goal on the man advantage in the second period also moved him past Robert Svehla for the most power-play goals by a blueliner in franchise history with 27.
Video: Ekblad, Barkov lift Panthers to 5-4 win vs. Predators
"I thought he had a great game," Quenneville said. "He did everything right at both ends. He had a terrific goal on the power play that put us in a really good spot. He did a lot of good things."
The second multi-goal game of his career, Ekblad, who skated 24:45 in the win, also became the fifth defenseman in franchise history to find the back of the net twice with the extra attacker in a single game, joining Robert Svehla, Brian Campbell, Sandis Ozolinsh and Bret Hedican.
"He's really something on the ice," Panthers defenseman Radko Gudas said. "He's been a treat to watch. He's feeling it. He's doing really well. I'm happy to be a part of the team that he's on."
GOAL OF THE YEAR
It's not every day that you see a player score twice in overtime.
Just 36 seconds after having his initial goal taken off the board after the play was ruled offside, Ekblad, not deterred in the slightest, skated right back down the ice, collected a nice feed from Huberdeau and lifted a backhand shot into the net to lock in a 4-3 victory in Dallas on March 27.
Adding to the excitement, Sergei Bobrovsky made a few jaw-dropping saves right before goal.
Video: FLA@DAL: Ekblad scores with 10 seconds left in OT
"I was very discouraged," Ekblad said of his mood after the offside call. "That hurt, especially because in that situation it's kind of the last thing you're thinking about when you have a clear-cut, 2-on-1 [rush], to stay onside. Looking down at it, it hurt. But, right after, Ulfy [Panthers assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson] put me right back out and gave me the opportunity. Bob made a huge blocker save. That's the only reason we were able to do that and go win that game."
Always a clutch performer, the goal marked the fifth overtime game-winner of Ekblad's career.
"What a move by Ek, I guess you could say on both [goals]," Quenneville said of the unusual sequence of events following the win. "I don't think I've ever seen someone score two overtime goals in the same game. That can go down as one of the better moves that we've seen."
STAY IN TOUCH
Want to keep up with Ekblad and his adventures in South Florida this summer? Make sure to follow him on Twitter (@Ekblad5FLA) and Instagram (@AaronEkblad5)!