Panthers top pick Aaron Ekblad lived up to expectations

With a whirlwind rookie season behind him, Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad cracked a smile before letting out a heavy sigh of relief shortly after cleaning out his locker at the BB&T Center.

A journey that began the moment the Panthers made him the No. 1 overall selection in last year’s draft had finally come to an end and it looked as if the weight of the world had been lifted from his broad shoulders.

He had been saddled with not only living up to the lofty expectations that accompanied his draft stock, but also the responsibility of immediately helping improve the fortunes of a franchise that had finished second to last the previous season and qualified for the playoffs only four times in its history.

In the end, he accomplished both.

"I feel like I was given confidence every single night from the coaching staff," said Ekblad, who played the majority of the season alongside veteran defenseman Brian Campbell on Florida’s top-defensive pairing.

"I think I was thrown into the fire and I handled it well. That’s kind of the challenge that I like and I accept."

From the moment he stepped onto the ice, it was clear that Ekblad wasn’t the type to back away from any challenge. The 18-year-old puck prodigy came into the league with a long list of goals, or milestones as he often called them, and quickly began to check them off one by one.

A finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy, he led all rookie defensemen in goals (12), power-play goals (6), power-play points (13), shots (170) and fewest shot attempts against per 60 minutes (38.04). He also finished second in assists (27), plus/minus (plus-12), hits (109) and blocked shots (80) while averaging 21:48 of ice time per game.

One of just two rookies to compete in the 2015 NHL All-Star Game, he recorded four assists during the exhibition to lead all defenseman and match former Panthers Olli Jokinen (2003) and Pavel Bure (2000) for the most points at an All-Star Game in franchise history.

Not bad for a first timer, right?

Florida Panthers player reviews

As he made his way throughout the United States and Canada over the course of his rookie campaign, he was always in the spotlight, often dealing with a circus of reporters that poked and prodded the seemingly infallible blueliner in an attempt to explain his surprising success.

Over the course of the year he had changed cities, leagues and teams and was still somehow flourishing at a position defined by its notoriously steep learning curve.

There was one thing in his life, however, that remained constant along the way.

"At the end of the day, it’s just hockey," said Ekblad. "You live, you learn and you make mistakes. I made a lot of them. I got bailed out a lot and I got yelled at a lot, it’s just the way it is. It’s not to ever get you down, it’s to motivate you. You’ve got to accept those challenges or there’s nothing there for you."

As for the added media attention, a humble Ekblad is more than eager to pass the torch to his good friend and this year’s presumed No. 1 overall pick, Connor McDavid.

"Give him the spotlight, give him it," Ekblad said with a hardy laugh.

WHAT HE DID RIGHT

At this point, it may be easier to simply list what Ekblad did wrong in his first professional season. His 39 points were not only a franchise record for a rookie defenseman, but also the third-most points in NHL history by a defenseman who remained 18 years old through at least Feb. 1, finishing behind Bobby Orr (41 points) and Phil Housley (66 points). 

WHERE HE NEEDS TO IMPROVE

After recording at least eight points in three consecutive months, Ekblad went on to score only seven combined points in February and March as opponents began to figure out his offensive routine from the blue line. He was held to one shot on goal or fewer in 15 of his final 34 contests and will have to make adjustments to his game if he hopes to continue producing steadily on offense.

"I’ve got to be quicker," said Ekblad. "When I’m shooting from the point, I think (opponents) kinda learned that I go forehand, backhand pretty easily there and towards the end [of the season] they started blocking them. I’ve got to come up with some new stuff this summer. As the game changes you have to adapt."

BEST GAME

Dec. 6 vs. Buffalo. Ekblad, who entered the game leading all NHL rookie defensemen with 14 points, set a career high with three points as the Panthers beat the Sabres 3-2 in Sunrise. He became just the second rookie defenseman in Panthers history to record three points in a game, joining Dan Boyle, who accomplished the feat during the 1998-99 season. Ebklad was named the game’s first star and extended his point streak to four games.

"I don’t want to get too cocky or anything like that, but pretty happy to be producing and I couldn’t be doing that without some help from these guys," €ˆEkblad said after the game.

GOAL OF THE YEAR

ADVANCED STATS

Playing alongside a puck-possession dynamo in Campbell, Ekblad ranked second among Panthers defenseman in Corsi For (53.85), Corsi Rel (3.76), Fenwick For (53.39) and Fenwick Rel (3.45). Although he was deployed almost exclusively in the offensive and neutral zone, it’s also worth noting that Ekblad’s 20.26 scoring chances allowed per 60 minutes at even strength were the second fewest among all NHL defensemen with at least 50 games played.

LOOKING AHEAD

Ekblad is currently competing at the 2015 IIHF World Championship in Prague, Czech Republic, where he’s notched four goals and seven points in eight games. He will enter the second year of his entry-level contract hoping to avoid the oft-dreaded sophomore slump that befalls so many of the league’s top young talents. Helping avoid this regression, Ekblad said, will be the fact the Panthers are likely to return all six of their starting defensemen from last season.

"That helps a lot," he said. "I love our d-core. We have a good, strong, steady d-core and if everyone stays healthy throughout a long season it’s good the kind of damage that we can do."

You can follow Jameson Olive on Twitter @JamesonCoop or email him at JamesonOlive@gmail.com.