After capturing the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 2014-15, former No. 1 overall pick Aaron Ekblad didn’t skip a beat during a second season of patrolling the blue line for the Florida Panthers.
As a consistent fixture on Florida’s top-defensive pairing, Ekblad scored a career-high 15 goals, including four game winners, to go along with 21 assists in 78 games. His 182 shots on goal were tops among all Panthers skaters and his 21:40 of ice time per game were second to only veteran defenseman Brian Campbell.
When asked how he was able to avoid the pitfalls that typically accompany any Calder Trophy winner’s highly anticipated follow-up campaign, Ekblad confessed that his mindset entering the season was less about tweaking his game and more about focusing on the idea that hockey is, in fact, just a game.
“Everyone always talks about that sophomore slump, and I think I experienced it early,” Ekblad said after cleaning out his locker at the BB&T Center in April. “I might have only had a point for six or seven games, but it was always a stick-with-it-type thing. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself early on, but then I kind of realized that there’s no pressure.
“This is a game I’ve played my whole life. This is a game that my teammates have played their whole lives. They’re here to support me and I’m here to support them in every situation.”
In his first taste of the postseason, Ekblad recorded one assist, seven blocked shots and 14 hits in six games. And although the New York Islanders cut his Stanley Cup dreams short, Ekblad happily admitted that the intensity of those hard-fought games left a gaping hole in his stomach that only a return to the playoffs can fill.
“In the OHL you experience that intensity a little bit, but it’s nothing like the NHL,” Ekblad said of his first NHL playoff experience. “It’s not like that belief in that kind of motivation that every team and every player has. You see it every game, whether your watching at night or playing at night, it’s a different kind of hunger that guys have because it’s a lifelong dream. It’s something that you never want to step away from.”
It’s a common held belief in hockey that defensemen take far longer to develop than forwards, but Ekblad is certainly proving to be an exception to that rule. At just 20 years old, the bearded blueliner already resembles a seasoned veteran both in play and appearance, and is projected to only get better as he solidifies himself as both the present and future cornerstone of Florida’s defense.
“I think I definitely got better (this season),” Ekblad said. “It was a little bit of a shorter summer last year and the summer before that I had a concussion that kept me out for a bit. This summer is going to be a great summer to build on everything.”
After scoring 12 goals as a rookie and 15 as a sophomore, Ekblad became the only defenseman drafted by the Panthers to score 10-plus goals in back-to-back seasons to start a career – a feat that two of the franchise’s all-time great blueliners, Ed Jovanovski and Jay Bouwmeester, never accomplished.
In a game that seemed destined for overtime, Ekblad scored with 20.2 seconds left to lift the Panthers to a 1-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Nov. 16.
As time ticked down, Ekblad, who scored the game-tying goal with 37.9 seconds left to force overtime against the Lightning the night before, fired a shot from the point that bounced off the skate of defenseman Victor Hedman and over the shoulder of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy into the net.
“Lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky,” Ekblad said of the goal. “I got screens in front. Just lucky, I can’t say anything else. …My hands were high on the stick and I lobbed it in there and hoped for the best.”
GOAL OF THE YEAR
This is one that takes a few viewings to truly appreciate.
On a 2-on-1 rush during 4-on-4 play, Ekblad took a saucer pass from Jonathan Huberdeau in the right circle and somehow managed to one-time the puck past goaltender Phillip Grubauer before it even touched the ice, extending Florida’s lead against the Capitals to 3-0 on Dec. 10.
"We beat a very, very good team tonight," Ekblad said after the game. "They had an 8-2-1 road record and that's pretty darn good in this league."