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Florida Panthers Top 25 under 25: #1 Aaron Ekblad

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It takes a special player to top a Panthers prospect list, but Ekblad is that good, and ready to get even better.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Ekblad

Position: Defense

Birthdate: 02/07/96 (19)

Acquired: Drafted 1st round (#1 Overall) in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft

2014-15 Team/League: Florida Panthers (NHL)

Stats:

GP G A PTS PIM +/-
81 12 27 39 32 +12

Nationality: Canadian

Size: 6'4", 216 pounds

Contract Status: Signed to ELC for two more seasons for AAV of $925,000

If the LBC Top 25 under 25 has shown us anything it is that the Florida Panthers are loaded with young talent. To be rated at number one means that much more when one considers that fact. Indeed, players like Sasha Barkov and Nick Bjugstad warranted serious looks for a number one ranking, but in the end it came down to this: Only six defensemen in NHL history have started an NHL season at age 18 and finished it with more than 25 points, and Aaron Ekblad was one of them. I am sure you all understand that a fact like that simply requires being written in bold, there is no option not to bold it. But the "Egg-man" (as Florida Panther fans took to calling Ekblad after television analyst Denis Potvin's mispronunciation of his name) took it one step farther, because he did not just score more than 25 points- his 39 points as a rookie, as an 18-year-old, were the third-most in NHL history for a defenseman that age. The two players who produced more points? The legendary Bobby Orr, who did it in 1966-67. and Phil Housley, whose record of 66 came in 1982-83, when high-powered offenses were terrorizing goalies around the league. If anyone still has questions, the answer is "yes," we have entered epic territory here.

Lets take a look at more historical data: Ekblad is only the 6th defensemen in the last 28 years to win the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie. He is also the first blueliner to win the award since 2009-10 (when Tyler Myers won it). Yes, it takes something special to be the top ranked player under the age of 25 in an organization full of such talent, but Ekblad is truly something special.

Why is this all so special, you may wonder? Because defense is such a demanding position. Consider this, from si.com and Dale Tallon:

For a young defenseman, Ekblad has a remarkable blend of poise, anticipation and reaction ability. But what sets him apart is that he also plays a full 200-foot game. His significant offensive contributions have led some in the league to make comparisons between Ekblad and his boyhood idol, Nicklas Lidstrom.

"They’re hard to find, players like that, and that’s why [Ekblad] was the first pick overall," Florida general manager Dale Tallon says. "Usually it’s offensive and they’re not good defensively, or they’re good defensively and they don’t have any offense. But when you get the whole package, it really helps your franchise."

A fitting comparison to Hall-of-Fame defensemen, and a player some consider the best NHL defenseman since Bobby Orr, and the reason that Ekblad wears number 5, yes, we are still in epic territory here. What Dale said to SI.com is really "the thing" here, the remarkable thing: he is not simply an offensive, or defensive defenseman, like so many other stand-outs, he is both wrapped in one package. Consider this extraordinary fact: Ekblad had the third highest zone-start-adjusted iCorsi/60 of any defenseman on the Panthers last season. What does that mean? Those who read my piece on Erik Gudbranson in this series will recall that it can be very difficult to find quantifying data to determine what a good defensive player is. The best numbers to quantify that were quality of competition and zone-start adjusted iCorsi/60. As an example, it is easy to say that with 39 points, Eggs was a stand-out offensive defenseman, but what can we learn about the defense?

Lets take a rest stop break at this point, because this gets complicated quickly. There is no denying that the Panthers protected Ekblad in the extreme last season. The rookie started 60.8% of his shifts in the offensive zone along with Brian Campbell. That is nothing short of extreme protection. Consider that since 2011, only five other defensemen were selected in the top-5 picks of the NHL draft. Looking at those other 5, and the seasons where they played more than 60 games (to keep small numbers of games from skewing data), the zone starts look like this:

2013 4th overall pick Seth Jones (Nashville): In his rookie campaign in 2013-14, Jones played 77 games and had an offensive zone start percentage (OZ%) of 50.6% in a season where he put up 25 points. That may explain how he ended up -23 that season. In his second season (last year), they pushed his OZ% up to 54.8% and he produced 27 points.

2012 2nd overall pick Ryan Murray (Columbus): In his rookie season, in 2013-14, Murray played 66 games and had an OZ% of 51.7% in a season where he put up 21 points. An injury cut his sophomore season down to only 12 games.

2012 4th overall pick Griffin Reinhart (Islanders): has only played 8 NHL games.

2012 5th overall pick Morgan Rielly (Toronto): played 73 games in his rookie year of 2013-14. He had an OZ% of 47.9% that season, and produced 27 points (while going -14). His second year, 2014-15, his OZ% dropped to 46.1%and he produced 29 points (while going -16).

2011 4th overall pick Adam Larsson (New Jersey): Larsson played 65 games in 2011-12, putting up 18 points while seeing an OZ% of 52.1%. Larsson would not play another 60+ game season until 2014-15, when he produced 24 points in 64 games with an OZ% of 38%

Why, you may ask, is any of this relevant? First and foremost, it does prove that the Cats sheltered Ekblad at a substantial rate, but consider this: Seth Jones, Adam Larsson, and Morgan Rielly were all 19-years-old as a rookies, and Ryan Murray was 20-years-old. It is noteworthy that the Panthers' young defenseman was a full year younger than any of those other rookies as an NHL first-timer. But here is where things get very interesting:

Ekblad's zone-start adjusted, 5 on 5 iCorsi/60 was 9.59. The Panthers top defensive defenseman, Erik Gudbranson had a 9.92, and Willie Mitchell was second on the team with 9.77. Ekblad had a zone-start adjusted iCorsi/60 that was third best on the team. What you may have expected to see, with someone with as high an offensive zone-start rate as Eggs, is what linemate Brian Campbell finished with: 5.54 (lowest on the team). But this was not the case, which tells us that Ekblad was playing some fantastic defense to go along with his offense. Oh, and one more thing to add to that? He was second on the team in ice-time last season (after Campbell), averaging 21:48 per game in total time-on-ice. Consider that Jones in his rookie season had a zone-start-adjusted iCorsi/60 of 8.50, Murray's rookie season he had a 5.98, Rielly's was a 9.87, and Larsson had a 9.29. The fact is, Ekblad put up stellar defensive numbers despite being sheltered and despite being 18-years-old, and despite playing over 21 minutes per game.

All of this lends credence to Willie Mitchell's comments about Ekblad to Si.com:

"People don’t understand how hard [it] is," Mitchell said in early February, a few days before Ekblad’s 19th birthday. "Eighteen to play in the NHL is one thing. To succeed at a high level is another. To be one of the best players on your team is another. And to do it at a position which is the hardest position to break into in the NHL, is special."

Much like Gudbranson, Ekblad is praised for his maturity, this time from coach Gerard Gallant :

When Florida coach Gerard Gallant first encountered Ekblad at rookie camp, he couldn’t believe that the kid was only 18. "He’s more like a 23- or 24-year-old," Gallant says. "And that’s the way he carries himself."

Ekblad excelled in all aspects of the game, which was what might have been expected based on his pre-NHL history. He was described by Future Considerations this way:

An exceptional talent, Ekblad has an impressive blend of size and strength for his age. He's mature, confident and poised in all three zones, skates well and is strong in transition. ....

"The 2014 NHL Draft’s undisputed top blueliner blends all the elements NHL teams covet when drafting defensemen," Future Considerations’ scouting director Dan Stewart said. "He’s a big, right-handed shooting, physical defenseman that has leadership qualities and the analytical smarts to read the developing play both offensively and defensively. He has a booming point shot that he gets on net and the constant desire to improve his overall game.

"Ekblad is willing to put in the work to make himself a top pairing blueliner at the next level."

The word "exceptional" has followed him like a title, as he is one of only three players to be granted "exceptional" status for early entry into the Ontario Hockey League as a 15-year old (the others being John Tavares and Connor McDavid). His rookie campaign in the NHL re-affirmed how exceptional he is. One more group of stats to consider: Ekblad was first last season among rookie defensemen in goals, power-play goals, shots, and power-play points. He was second in assists, plus-minus, hits and blocked shots. And he was younger than all of them. Oh yeah, he also dished out 109 hits, and blocked 80 shots.

What can we expect moving forward? Hockey's Future had this to say at the conclusion of last season:

Ekblad made the jump directly from junior hockey to the NHL in 2014-15 as an 18-year-old and has averaged over 22 minutes of ice time a night for the Panthers as a rookie. Long-term he is expected to be a fixture in the Florida lineup and should only improve as he matures physically, continues to develop his skill set and becomes more familiar with the game at the NHL level.

They added this later, in their next look at Ekblad:

Most full-time NHL defenseman take a few years until they look at home, but Ekblad looked poised and confident. He did it all this season, from working on the powerplay to killing penalties—logging significant minutes for the Panthers.

Aaron Ekblad brings our look at the Panthers top prospects and players under the age of 25 to a close. He is as exceptional as he was predicted to be, and even among the Cats' emerging deep organizational talent, he stands out at a particularly difficult position to succeed at. Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson, Alex Petrovic, are all fantastic young players, yet none entered the league at such a young age and prospered like Ekblad, and that is in part due to his specialness, and in part due to how difficult it is playing defense in the NHL.

To bring this series to a close, I quote from hockey's future one final time, about Aaron Ekblad's future:

At this point, nothing is surprising, but the Calder-nominated defenseman’s ascent to the top-tier at his position was a quick one, and his ceiling isn’t even in sight yet.

Where We Voted for Ekblad

Shane Todd JC Kevin Donny
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Who We Voted 1st

Shane Todd JC Kevin Donny
Aleksander Barkov Ekblad

Ekblad

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