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Panthers' Ekblad has exceeded expectations, but it wouldn't have happened without Campbell

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Ekblad has been good, but Stanley Cup-winner Campbell hasn't gotten enough credit for helping him get there.

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Brian Campbell has helped Aaron Ekblad this season.
Brian Campbell has helped Aaron Ekblad this season.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Ekblad has been amazing for the Panthers this year. He has "obliterated expectations", and impressed almost everyone within the organization with his play. He's on pace to have a historic rookie season, and currently leads all rookie defenseman in points with 32.

He's also holding his own defensively while piling up the points, with impressive Corsi and scoring chance numbers. His 53.2% CF% is second among Panthers defenseman, and his SCF% of 55.8% is also second on the team. The Panthers are also much better with him on the ice, as he has a Relative CF% of 3.0%, and a Relative SCF% of 5.4%.

These are extremely impressive accomplishments for an 18-year-old rookie, something that is essentially unheard of in today's NHL. Over the past seven years, only eleven defenseman have played at least 500 minutes in an NHL season as 18-year-olds. Of those, Ekblad is currently first in relative Fenwick For percent (the best predictor of future goals for percentage for defenseman), ahead of players such as Seth Jones, Victor Hedman, Cam Fowler, and Drew Doughty.

In other words, the Panthers filled a need they had going into the 2014 NHL Draft and now have a player who looks to be a future number one defenseman who can play in all situations, dominate the opposition, and help the team win hockey games.

Overlooked in all of this is the fact that Ekblad's defensive partner, Brian Campbell, has yet again had an excellent season and has solidified his position as one of the best possession players in the NHL. Over the past four seasons, out of defenseman who played 3000 total minutes, Campbell is 5th in Relative Fenwick For, ahead of players such as Zdeno Chara, Alex Pietrangelo, and Ryan Suter.

There's no question that Campbell helps his defensive partners out. Over the past four years with the Panthers, Campbell has played more than 250 minutes with seven different partners, and six of the seven saw increases in their overall CF% because of it.

Player CF% w/Campbell CF% w/o Campbell
Tom Gilbert 52.9% 47.9%
Jason Garrison 53.7% 51.3%
Aaron Ekblad 55.6% 40.2%
Dmitry Kulikov 54.5% 49.6%
Erik Gudbranson 52.0% 49.2%
Mike Weaver 44.9% 47.8%
Tyson Strachan 51.4% 43.8%

Despite this, Campbell doesn't get as much credit as he should for helping out his teammates. In 2011, Campbell played with Jason Garrison, who then went to the Vancouver Canucks after signing a six-year, $27.6 million dollar contract in free agency. Garrison hasn't really lived up to that contract, and was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning during the most recent offseason in a package deal for a second round pick. Last season, Campbell played with Tom Gilbert, who signed a two-year, $5.6 million dollar contract with the Montreal Canadiens during the offseason. Gilbert has been a healthy scratch for the Habs a number of times this season.

Campbell makes his defensive partners look much better than they actually are, a sign of elite play. Surprisingly, however, he doesn't have a reputation around the league as an elite defenseman. In fact, he barely made ESPN's top 25 when they did a ranking of the league's defenseman before the start of the season.

Why doesn't Campbell stand out when watching the game if the underlying numbers say he's one of the best in the game?

One word: patience.

Campbell is "cooler than the other side of the pillow" with the puck, something that most other players aren't.

It's not often that Campbell makes a rash play, or commits an egregious turnover. Instead, the slick vet will take his time, draw the forechecker in, and get the puck over to his defensive partner, who then has tons of space to make a play. It's not as impressive as the point totals of P.K. Subban and Erik Karlsson, or as noticeable as the strong defensive play of Chara and Shea Weber, but it's just as effective. Check out the examples below.

Campbell pulls the puck back and waits for the forechecker to come to him. He then flips the puck over to Ekblad, who has so much time with the puck that he bobbles it, recovers it, and still has time to make an outlet pass to Derek MacKenzie. If Soup doesn't pull the opposition all the way down by the net, and instead makes the pass as soon as he can, then the F1 has less distance to travel to get to Ekblad, and gets to apply more pressure. That puck bobble by the rookie probably results in a turnover, and time stuck in the defensive zone for the team.

Here, Campbell doesn't like the way the Cats are set up for their breakout. He takes his time, and waits until he sees something that he likes. He then calls Ekblad over, which gets each of them moving and on their strong hand, and then draws the forechecker over before delivering a tape-to-tape pass to Ekblad in space. Ekblad's speed makes him a threat, and another forechecker starts to come at him. This leaves MacKenzie open along the boards, and Eggs delivers the puck to him.

Here, if Campbell passes the puck right away, the forechecker will be able to turn and get in Ekblad's passing lane. Instead, he takes his time, gets the puck to his forehand, and makes sure he delivers a tape-to-tape pass. The forechecker is now out of the passing lane, and Ekblad has time and space to make his outlet pass. He finds Tomas Kopecky open in the neutral zone, and Kopecky gets the puck into the offensive zone.

In all of the above examples, Campbell doesn't make the pass up to the forwards; Ekblad does. But make no mistake, it's Campbell who starts the breakout, and pushes the puck up ice.

There's no denying that Ekblad has lived up to his pedigree, and is playing like a first overall pick should. It should be noted, however, that as good as Ekblad has been, he would be having a much different season if he wasn't playing alongside Campbell.

The veteran's on ice patience consistently gives Ekblad ample time and space to make smart decisions with the puck, something that every NHL player needs if they want to succeed. Some are good at creating time and space for themselves; Campbell does it for others. He doesn't get enough credit for what he does, but it's clear that he helps everyone he plays with.

Just ask Aaron Ekblad; I'm sure the 18-year-old would know.