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Panthers' Ekblad turning heads with rookie season

by Mike G. Morreale / Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell can remember the day he concluded that rookie Aaron Ekblad was going to be something very special.

It occurred last October during the Panthers' trip to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., for three days of training and team bonding prior to the season.

"He wouldn't remember it, but I remember it," Campbell said. "We were at practice and I gave him a pass where it didn't give him a lot of time and he just made a pass through one of our guys' skates to one of our forwards. I just kind of nodded my head thinking, 'All right, that's a play I feel like I like to make out there.'

"I've played in the League a while now and I feel like I can make those plays, but to see an 18-year-old have confidence and do that, I'm like, 'OK, yeah, this guy is the real deal.'"

Ekblad's best has been nothing short of remarkable from the moment he stepped into training camp three months after being selected No. 1 in the 2014 NHL Draft by the Panthers.

"I didn't really set any goals for myself and just said let's try and have a steady incline in my play and get better and better every day," Ekblad said. "I don't think at the end of the year I will be where I am today, so that's kind of how I want it to be."

A case has been made that the impact he's made at his age rivals one of the most decorated defensemen to play in the NHL.

"I haven't seen an 18-year-old have command of the game as Aaron has since Scott Stevens [with the Washington Capitals in 1982-83]," NHL Network analyst Craig Button said. "Scott was more physical, more rambunctious, but I'm talking purely being able to impact the game."

Stevens was two months younger than Ekblad in his draft year but made the Capitals because of various injuries and never played a game in the minor leagues. Stevens finished third in the voting for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year, recognition many feel Ekblad could earn.

"He understands what's required of any situation and how he can impact it," Button said. "When he was 15 he understood the things he could do; at 16 he understood he could do more; and at 17, the same thing. This year, he's expanded his game in terms of impact. All the years I've seen him, I don't see a player that gets outside of his strengths."

Stevens' NHL debut coincided with Washington's first Stanley Cup Playoff appearance. Ekblad's success is with an organization that has reached the playoffs once since 2000 and is in a rebuilding phase.

"It seemed that when the puck dropped for the first game it was like he had been waiting for that moment," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. "He's received a lot of ice time and he might be a little tired, but overall he's been fantastic."

Ekblad averages more than 22 minutes per game and is plus-7. His 34 points are one fewer that John Klingberg (Dallas Stars) among rookie defensemen, and he played in the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game.

Ottawa Senators forward Curtis Lazar, who teamed with Ekblad on the Canada team that finished fourth at the 2014 World Junior Championship, said he considers him a seasoned veteran on the ice already.

"He's so mature and treats everyone with respect," Lazar said. "He has poise with the puck, knows details, and understands that you have to make that crisp first pass in transition. He has the ability to join the rush and put the puck in the net, and I'm happy to see him doing so well. I'm not surprised. He's a heck of a hockey player, and I can't wait to see him five years down the road; it's going to be pretty incredible."

In addition to being a great skater, it was Ekblad's decision-making and puck-handling that had scouts raving about him during his draft year with the Barrie Colts in the Ontario Hockey League.

"He did not seem to have the same learning curve that most players coming into the OHL had," said NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards, who specializes in the OHL. "He had great success on the power play right from the beginning of his junior career. I think everyone always thought Aaron would have a great NHL career and it's exciting to see how he'll develop."

Ekblad turned 19 on Feb. 7. The 6-foot-4, 216-pound right-handed shot was granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada to be eligible for the 2011 OHL draft as a 15-year-old; a year younger than the standard age of 16. After being selected by the Colts with the No. 1 pick in 2011, Ekblad won OHL Rookie of the Year and was named to the OHL All-Rookie Team.

"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."

Button said he feels it might be a long time before the NHL unveils another 18-year-old defenseman with Ekblad's ability.

"Aaron Ekblad is that exceptional player," he said. "A lot of guys can get away with things at a young age with his type of size as 14- or 15-year-old players. Ekblad doesn't just have an advantage with his size, but hockey sense, awareness, a good skill set and physical maturity."

Tallon smiled when asked if Ekblad reminded him of any NHL player, past or present.

"That's tough because he's got a little bit of everything," Tallon said. "Maybe a little [Nicklas] Lidstrom with his awareness on how to play the position defensively. He's a really cool customer and we're so happy he's a part of our team."

Ekblad was No. 2 on NHL Central Scouting's final list of the top North American players eligible for the 2014 draft. Calgary Flames prospect Sam Bennett, chosen No. 4, was the No. 1-ranked prospect.

"The decision to select Aaron first overall was a decision he made quite easy for us," Panthers director of scouting Scott Luce said. "His overall completeness as a player, teammate and person really won us over. His play on the ice spoke volumes, but how he handled himself off the ice and his leadership abilities made the decision to select him that much easier.

"He's ahead of schedule with regards to his point production as compared to other players his age and is right there with some of the most prolific 18-year-old point-producing defensemen in NHL history."

Luce and his staff felt Ekblad was NHL-ready prior to being drafted but that it's very hard to project how a young player will respond at training camp.

"Until you see how the player transitions to the NHL pace, there is always an unknown," Luce said. "Aaron did not make a big splash early in either the rookie tournament or in preseason, but by his last exhibition game, you could see he was ready to contribute at the NHL level."

Dan Marr, the director of NHL Central Scouting, said he and his staff thought the best was yet to come for Ekblad.

"Aaron could maximize his size and strength game in the NHL playing against bigger, stronger opponents more assertively than he could in junior," Marr said. "It's never a given that top-end players will step into the NHL and contribute, but knowing Aaron's commitment and character it's not a surprise."

What set Ekblad apart from the other players in the 2014 draft class was his physical maturity.

"I think being able to handle the rigors of the NHL is something I know Aaron had in him," Button said. "The other top players in the draft class were not as physically advanced as Aaron. Quite frankly that's probably the only thing that kept Sam Reinhart from getting a regular spot in the lineup with the Buffalo Sabres."

Ekblad's ability to handle tough situations at such a young age is probably the most impressive aspect to Gallant.

"It's the way he carries himself and handles himself out there," he said. "For a kid his age at this level, that's the biggest thing that stands out for me. He reads plays in the defensive zone, anticipates, and he's got that knack for breaking up plays."

Ekblad acknowledged that the pressure associated with being the top choice in the NHL draft never seemed to get the best of him.

"There's pressure but it's motivation as well," he said. "If you have that kind of pressure you can kind of spin it as motivation. I'm not a guy who will succumb to media pressure or anything like that. I don't have that amount of pressure in Florida, and it's nice to get away from hockey every once in a while so you get more hungry when you get back on the ice."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL

Author: Mike G. Morreale | Staff Writer

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