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Panthers making strides in Ekblad's second season

by Michael LoRe / Florida Panthers

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad walked the halls and corridors of MLB Network/NHL Network on Wednesday and was shown the ins and outs.

He saw the memorabilia, the history. He was introduced to MLB Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz. He took a handful of swings with a Wiffle ball bat at MLB Park, the indoor ballpark inside the building (he hit one home run over the left field wall). Ekblad spent 10 minutes answering questions from fans via Periscope and wrapped up his visit with some interviews.

Ekblad and the Panthers are still in the New York metropolitan area after a 5-1 win against the New York Islanders on Tuesday. Florida's road trip continues at the New Jersey Devils on Thursday.

"As a kid, obviously you want to play in the NHL and you never think you're going to get that opportunity until it happens, then you run with it," Ekblad said. "All of this is part of the game and part of being a professional hockey player. It's not taxing in any way. I'll be out of here by 4:30-5 (o'clock), getting room service and going to sleep pretty early with the game [Thursday].

"It all comes with the territory. There are definitely fun perks and a lot of really cool people you get to meet in your sport or the other main sports. It's really cool actually."

The perks are certainly warranted for Ekblad, the No. 1 pick at the 2014 NHL Draft.

Ekblad, 19, led all rookie defensemen in goals (12), power-play goals (six), power-play points (13), shots (170) and fewest shot attempts against per 60 minutes (38.04) in 2014-15. His 39 points were two shy of the NHL record for an 18-year-old defenseman set by his mentor and agent, Hall of Fame member Bobby Orr (1966-67).

Ekblad was named to the 2015 NHL All-Star Game and capped his rookie season by winning the Calder Trophy. He has 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in 31 games this season and enters Thursday with a three-game point streak.

Things have gone better for Ekblad following a slow start. He had one goal and two assists in 11 games in October, but responded with three goals and four assists in 12 games last month. He has three goals, two assists and a plus-6 rating in eight games in December.

"Not a lot of scoring production from myself (early this season), but as of late it's been coming together well and as a team things have been coming together well," Ekblad said. "We're beating pretty good teams fairly consistently and that's what it's going to take for us to get into a playoff spot and hold onto it.

"Last year, I had the rookie tournament and a few days with the rookies after that. Then we had training camp, exhibition season and then you're playing. This year, it was just a couple of exhibition games and then you're right into the season. It was a bit of a slow start, but I started playing a different style of game, a style of game I'm more confident with and used to, and it made it a lot easier after that."

Ekblad has achieved individual success in his young career, but he's aware there are still goals he and his teammates want to attain. Earning a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the main priority.

Florida made a run towards the postseason in 2014-15, but fell short by seven points. That shortcoming has provided extra motivation for Ekblad and his teammates.

"I think last year myself and lot of the other younger guys didn't realize it's the games earlier in the year before the Christmas break that are truly the most important ones, the ones that you need to have, especially against teams below you in the standings," Ekblad said. "You definitely have to win every game against teams below you in the standings, and it's always nice beating the teams above you."

Ekblad is constantly learning and improving, on and off the ice.

Having veteran teammates such as forward Jaromir Jagr (43 years old), defensemen Willie Mitchell (38) and Brian Campbell (36), and goaltender Roberto Luongo (36) give the teenage Ekblad a unique set of teachers.

"I lived with [Mitchell], I'm experiencing the living legend of Jaromir Jagr every single day and I got to play with Brian Campbell for almost 100 games," Ekblad said. "Learning from all three of those guys in all different ways, whether it's life or hockey, is really cool. I've learned a lot of really cool things so far and I hope to extend on that."

A strong work ethic is the main lesson Ekblad has learned during his playing days and preaches not only to himself, but others -- including a 7-year-old hockey player who asked for advice during his Periscope Q & A on Wednesday.

"There's no doubt that hard work has definitely paid off getting to play in the NHL, but there's never a time you want to let that guard down or you don't want to work hard," Ekblad said. "Day in and day out, you have to continue to work hard. It's not Years One and Two where you leave your legacy on the game, it's the years Jagr is playing, Willie Mitchell, Brian Campbell are playing; they're leaving a legacy on the game.

"They've won Stanley Cups and that's what I want to do. I want to help my team and contribute to winning a Stanley Cup. I want to win multiple Stanley Cups and I pray to God that's with Florida because I love the team, love the organization and I think we have a really opportunity to do great things."

Author: Michael LoRe | NHL.com Staff Writer

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