Our penultimate article of the 25U25 countdown takes a look at the Panthers highest paid player and likely one of the youngest players that will play on opening night. High draft status has made it difficult to live up to expectations, but this blue-liner still has plenty of time to put it all together.
#2: Aaron Ekblad
Team: Florida Panthers
Drafted in 2014, 1st Round (1st Overall)
Aaron Ekblad... what a wonderful name... Aaron Ekblad... ain’t no passing craaaazzee...
He means no worries, for the rest of the Cats’ dayssss! He is problem-freeeee and defends responsiblyyyy... Aaron Ekbladdd.
Isn’t that how the song goes? Moving on...
Honestly, how else would one start an article about Aaron Ekblad? He’s larger than life. He’s the only player on the Florida Panthers (outside of maybe the occasional Barkov reference) that garners national media attention. He’s the highest paid player on the team and the highest paid player in team history. He’s on the cover of magazines. He’s the face of the franchise to most, especially anyone outside of Florida. He’s a first overall pick. He’s one of few to be granted Exceptional Status in order to play early in the CHL. He’s scored double-digit goals in every year with the Cats. He’s a pretty-boy professional athlete living in the glamour of South Florida.
Yet, many Panthers fans believe they’ve been shortchanged by Ekblad’s performance through four NHL seasons. Some point to his sometimes questionable defensive positioning, others to his lack of elite acceleration or that his draft status hasn’t reflected his on-ice play. Fans are craving to embrace a defenseman they consider as game-changing as Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, P.K. Subban, Alex Pietrangelo, or the like.
Ekblad was taken first overall in the 2014 NHL draft and was considered to be the consensus top overall player by most of the “experts”.
An interesting note: In retrospect, the 2014 NHL Draft ended up being a weak one, with Ekblad one of the best performing players taken, and likely the best defenseman of the entire draft - at least to this point. So, regardless of people’s feelings regarding Ekblad, the Panthers likely could not have made a better first overall selection, especially considering the need on defense. Comparatively, the 2018 NHL Draft was absolutely flush with defensive prospects, though we’re yet to see how many pan out. Perhaps Ekblad would have fallen further down into the top-10 or top-15 had he been part of this most recent crop of skaters.
Back to 2014: Ekblad had already played three seasons in the OHL, and he put up 53 points in 58 games in his draft year. Already a hulking 6’4” and 200+ pounds on draft day, and competing on a bad Florida training camp roster, Ekblad made the team out of camp in year one and has yet to look back since.
Statistically speaking, Ekblad’s rookie season still remains his best, posting 39 points in 81 games, with a career-high 27 assists. Since then, Aaron’s production has remained incredibly consistent (not including The Circus, also known as the Panthers 2016-2017 season). He’s played top-line minutes throughout his professional career and has been utilized in all on-ice situations.
With Ekblad, there isn’t a ton to discuss in terms of path to the NHL and intriguing stages of development. He’s been the best player on the ice his entire life, and plays a unique style that truly stands out amongst the competition. His patented half-slapper has allowed him to get pucks through traffic and on net with accuracy, and his awareness and long, rangy stick have helped him break up some dangerous situations in his own zone.
Panthers fans want to see Aaron make the next step, because the talent is all there. The question at this point in Ekblad’s career is: How badly does he himself want to be the best defenseman in the NHL? The sky is the limit for him based on his natural ability to play the game. Time spent in the gym focusing on explosiveness and quick-twitch muscle responses, along with rounding out his offensive arsenal with a more unpredictable repertoire, will make Ekblad the defenseman everyone knows he can be.
Regardless of his development, and quite remarkably, Ekblad is still the best defenseman on the Panthers roster as of now, and only 22-years-old. Aaron likely has 10 very good years left in his NHL career at a minimum. If he spends those years in a Panthers sweater, he’ll be breaking lots and lots of records.
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