PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Aaron Ekblad felt confident at No. 1, ready to move from the top of the draft straight to the NHL.
”I can step into the NHL next year,” he said.
The Florida Panthers sure hope he’ll ready in a hurry to become part of a promising nucleus they expect to lead them back to the playoffs.
Without a clear No. 1 on the board, general manager Dale Tallon was open to trading the pick on Friday night. In the end, he decided to take the 18-year-old from Belle River, Ontario, with the first selection at the Wells Fargo Center.
Ekblad, a 6-foot-4 and 214-pound defenseman who played for Barrie in the Ontario Hockey League, is the first blueliner to go No. 1 since St. Louis took Erik Johnson in 2006.
”That is the burden of expectation. I chase it,” Ekblad said. ”I want that burden of expectation. I want that feel for motivation and I want to succeed under that.”
The NHL will finish the draft with rounds two through seven on Saturday.
The Panthers had a top-three pick in the NHL draft for the fourth time in the past five years. The first three – defenseman Erik Gudbranson (in 2010), wing Jonathan Huberdeau (2011) and center Aleksander Barkov (2013) – all played significant roles last season. Florida also won the draft lottery in 2002 and 2003, but traded away those picks.
”I’m going to be learning from some great players, some young guys who have just stepped in, some older players who have had storied careers,” Ekblad said.
Ekblad was the OHL’s most outstanding defenseman last season, ranking first among defensemen with 23 goals and tying for fifth with 53 points. He also served as Barrie’s captain.
The Sabres selected center Sam Reinhart with the second overall pick. The Edmonton Oilers selected center Leon Draisaitl at No. 3, Calgary took center Sam Bennett fourth and the New York Islanders picked forward Michael Dal Colle fifth. Vancouver selected forward Jake Virtanen with the sixth pick, Carolina took defenseman Haydn Fleury seventh, Toronto selected forward William Nylander eighth, Winnipeg picked forward Nickolaj Ehlers ninth and Anaheim completed the top 10 with forward Nick Ritchie.
Here are five things from the NHL draft:
BROTHERLY LOVE: Flyers fans packed the arena for the first draft in the city. They gave one of the longest sustained boos in recent memory for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s draft introduction. He was drowned out for most of his 2-minute speech thanking the city for its hospitality.
”Isn’t this supposed to be the city of brotherly love,” he asked.
Bettman heard a huge ovation over the ”Let’s Go Flyers!” chant when he introduced the hometown team for the 17th pick.
”That’s more like it,” he said.
There was mild applause when the team selected little-known defenseman Travis Sanheim.
Former Flyer Rod Brind’Amour received a huge ovation when the Carolina assistant coach made the pick for the Hurricanes.
FATHER-SON: There are several offspring of former NHL players available in the draft. Brendan Lemieux (son of Claude), the Winterhawks’ Dominic Turgeon (Pierre), William Nylander (Michael), Kasperi Kapanen (Sami), Ryan MacInnis (Al), were set to hear their name called this weekend. The Sabres selected center Sam Reinhart with the second overall pick. He is the son of former NHL player Paul Reinhart, who was selected by the Atlanta Flames in the first round in 1979. Toronto picked Nylander eighth overall and Kapanen went 22nd to Pittsburgh on Friday night. The rest should go Saturday. New Jersey selected John Quenneville with the 30th pick; he’s the second cousin of Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville.
ARIZONA HISTORY: The Coyotes made their first pick since changing their name from Phoenix to Arizona. They selected forward Brendan Perlini with the first pick in ”Arizona” history. ”Becoming the Arizona Coyotes makes sense for us since we play our games in Glendale and the city is such a great partner of ours. We also want to be recognized as not just the hockey team for Glendale or Phoenix, but the team for the entire state of Arizona and the Southwest,” Coyotes Co-Owner, President and CEO Anthony LeBlanc said.
PULLED UP: Sam Bennett put behind his big 0 to focus on No. 4. Bennett, widely mocked because he failed to complete a single pull-up during a predraft work out, was picked fourth by Calgary. Bennett tried to brush off his failure before the draft, saying games aren’t won or lost based on pull-ups. ”I really had a strong feeling Calgary was going to pick me,” he said. ”Definitely after the third pick was announced, I really did feel like I knew Calgary was going to take me.”
TRADES: There was a big trade in the hours before the draft, when the Anaheim Ducks acquired center Ryan Kesler from the Vancouver Canucks for center Nick Bonino, defenseman Luca Sbisa and the 24th overall pick Friday. Nashville traded forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling to the Pittsburgh Penguins for forward James Neal midway through the draft.