Up next in our Season in Review series is one of the team's brightest stars from the 2014-2015 season. Aaron Ekblad made his presence known, and led the team's defensemen in points while playing top pairing minutes and thriving defensively.
Though Ekblad experienced success throughout the season, he didn't exactly come into the year as a sure lock to play on the team's top pairing. He looked as though he needed more work during development camp, and had a pretty unimpressive stat line through the team's six preseason games.
You know that 300 game learning curve that Dale Tallon always talks about for defensemen? It didn't apply to Ekblad. In fact, his learning curve was about 10 games, as he was looking like a 30-year-old veteran by the time he had suited up for his 11th game. Going back and watching him play very early in the season is actually a bit of a treat, because you get to see cool stuff like this...
Here, very early in a game against the Arizona Coyotes, he turns the puck over despite having time and space.
The rookie tries to do too much with his feet when he first gets the puck, and loses control of the biscuit for a split second. In the time that it takes him to recover, Shane Doan is able to jump on him and force the errant pass.
Later, in the same period, Ekblad finds the puck on his stick and Doan pressuring him yet again. This time, the rookie defenseman gets the better of the veteran and the Cats break the puck out of the zone.
By the time you get to the second period, the Calder Trophy winner is making plays like the one below.
The way that Ekblad learned and adapted to the style of hockey played in the NHL was incredible. By mid-season, he was looked like a top pairing defenseman who had been in the league for ten years.
"Right, so no one wants to cover me? Ok then, I'll just waltz on into the middle and blast one past the Vezina Trophy winner. No big deal."
The biggest issue I have with his offensive game is that I don't know where it would have been without Brian Campbell. We've already noted that Campbell's patience with the puck created space for Ekblad to break the puck out of the zone.
What we haven't talked about is how much Ekblad benefits from Campbell in the offensive zone. The Passing Stat Project tracked chain events for over 40 games for six NHL teams (Panthers, Capitals, Blackhawks, Rangers, Devils, and Islanders). Over that time span, Campbell contributed to an absurd 50% of Ekblad's shot attempts, while the second most consistent defensive pairing (Adam Larsson and Andy Greene) only saw Greene contribute to 29% of Larsson's shot attempts. I know that this section was supposed to only be for the Eye Test, but we know that Campbell can't shot, while Ekblad has a quick, hard, accurate shot that catches goalies by surprise. What we didn't know was just how much the two depended on each other for offense.
Would Ekblad be able to replicate his offensive success away from Campbell? Maybe. Is that something you want to risk in 2015-2016? Probably not.
Moving on to the defensive side of the game, I think that a clear indicator of his abilities is that I've watched over 5 hours of game film and have basically zero defensive highlights to show for it. He shuts down the opposition's offense before it ever really gets going, and the highlights that you see from other big defenseman (like the bone-crushing hits from Dustin Byfuglien) just don't really exist in Ekblad's game.
Seriously, I've spent 300 minutes watching the kid play, and I barely even notice the plays he makes defensively. You want to see the best visual I have for Ekblad's defense? Here you go...
That is a play being broken up before it even gets started. This is what Ekblad does. This is why I have no defensive zone highlights for you. I am sorry.
This stat line should be impossible for an 18-year-old to obtain. Not only does he produce points at a high rate, he's also largely positive in every possession metric. The most recent player to do something like that was Victor Hedman, and Ekblad surpassed him in production, SAT%, SCF%, and USAT%.
When it comes to dCorsi, Ekblad's most comparable defenseman seasons are Kris Letang (2014-2015), Jay Bouwmeester (2013-2014), and Alex Pietrangelo (2013-2014). Each one of those defensemen were used as a top paring defenseman on a playoff team.
So, as an 18-year-old, Ekblad was expected to perform similar to a top pairing defenseman on a playoff caliber team. He barely missed expectations, and will have an extra full year of development headed into the 2015-2016 season.
So, Ekblad will most likely be improving on the incredible season he had in 2014-2015. We've already noted that his puck possession skills were nothing short of miraculous, and in our breakdown of the team's passing statistics, it was also noted that Ekblad was the best offensive defenseman for the Cats in 2014-2015.
Some of that can be traced back to his usage, but again; THE KID IS 18-YEARS-OLD.
If he continues to develop, and doesn't suddenly hit a wall, he will win at least one Norris Trophy in his career.
Aaron Ekblad's rookie season will (and should) go down as one of the most impressive seasons in league history. As an 18-year-old, the exceptional player was able to step into a top pairing role at the NHL level and succeed.
Though he received some favorable usage from coach Gerard Gallant, and it's obvious that veteran Brian Campbell really helped Ekblad flourish, the young defenseman's achievements are still impressive.
I've said it about a million times before, but I'm going to say it again.
I am so glad Dale Tallon didn't trade that first overall selection.