SUNRISE, Fla. - After sustaining a pre-season injury while competing for Team North America at the 2017 World Cup of Hockey, Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad admittedly struggled to find his usual, effective rhythm in the early part of the 2016-17 season.
"I think the first part of my season, more or less, I was not skating back quickly to get a puck, worried about getting hit," Ekblad told reporters after cleaning out his locker at the BB&T Center in April. "I was making too quick of a play, not holding onto the puck and analyzing my outs and making the good, right option."
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Ekblad had been, up until this point, nothing short of spectacular since entering the league as an 18-year-old in 2014-15. He was named to the All-Star Game in each of his first two seasons and took home the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie in 2015.
Development isn't always linear, even for a player with Ekblad's remarkable pedigree. There were bound to be at least a few bumps on the road to stardom. As Ekblad looked for answers in his third NHL season, he sought out the advice of Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon.
"My game turned right around," said Ekblad, who finished his third NHL season with 21 points (10-11-21) in 68 games, of Tallon's input. "I sat in Dale Tallon's office. We had a long chat about a lot of things, more or less just how I was playing and how I was feeling mentally… I was able to work through all of that. In within probably two games I noticed the difference.
"It was amazing to feel like you can just go do things again, break through those barriers of the mental state that hockey is. It's a mental sport. I had to break through that and I felt great after. It felt like year one and two."
With the restoration of his confidence in the second half of the season, Ekblad believes that both himself and Florida's defense are poised for quite the comeback. As the 21-year-old continues to develop into one of the game's top young talents, the Panthers' entire defensive core is also growing around him, with players like Keith Yandle and Mike Matheson also highlighting the team's formidable blue line.
"We have a lot of talent in that dressing room," said Ekblad, who spent time playing alongside both Yandle and Matheson this past season. "We have a lot of will and a lot of ability. When those two things mesh together and chemistry builds, we'll have a chance to do amazing things in this league."
"In the end, I felt that we created chemistry. We had our struggles at the start, but we ended up coming together and learning a lot from each other."
If the puck is on Ekblad's stick, there's a good chance he's sending it towards the net.
Ekblad fired a career-high 225 shots on goal in 2016-17, finishing with the team lead in that category for the third consecutive season. To help put this statistic in perspective, it's worth noting that Ekblad's shot total for the season was nearly as high as Jason Demers (98), Mark Pysyk (86) and Alex Petrovic (55) combined!
After cashing in on 8.2 percent of his shots in 2015-16 and 7.1 percent in 2014-15, Ekblad's shooting percentage dipped to a career-low 4.4 this past season, which means he should definitely expect to see more goals in the future as his shooting percentage catches up with his rising shot totals.
It wasn't pretty, but it was a big win.
On Nov. 15, Ekblad helped lead the Panthers to a 4-3 overtime victory over the NHL-leading Montreal Canadiens after his snapped-stick slap shot somehow managed to slip past goaltender Carey Price 2:59 into the extra frame.
Price, who was looking for his 11th win in a row, which would have matched George Hainsworth's 1927 record for a single-season winning streak by a Habs goaltender, lost track of the puck after it bounced off the skate of defenseman Nathan Beaulieu in front of the net.
With the goal, Ekblad handed Montreal its first loss of the season at the Bell Centre.
Video: FLA@MTL: Ekblad scores OT winner as stick breaks
GOAL OF THE YEAR
You never forget your first, especially if it looks this good.
After intercepting a pass in the neutral zone, Ekblad uses a nifty move to get around Claude Giroux before unleashing a big slap shot past Flyers goaltender Steve Mason for the first shorthanded goal of his career.
Video: FLA@PHI: Ekblad steals, dances around Giroux for SHG