Panthers rookie Ekblad on historic scoring pace for defenseman his age
SUNRISE, Fla. — At the midway point of his rookie season, defenseman Aaron Ekblad only faintly resembles the player that the Florida Panthers selected with the No. 1 overall pick at the 2014 NHL Draft.
The wide-eyed, clean-shaven kid from Windsor, Ontario is no more.
In his place, a grizzled, battle-tested blueliner stood before reporters on Thursday morning after the team returned from their season-long, six-game road trip through Western Canada.
"It seemed like an eternity for sure, especially in those cold cities," said Ekblad, who sprouted a promising beard while on the road. "Happy to be back in Florida. Happy to be on home ice and back with our fans in our building."
Hitting the season’s halfway point in stride, Ekblad returns to South Florida not only firmly rooted in Calder Trophy conversations alongside Nashville’s Filip Forsberg and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau, but also on an historic scoring pace for a defenseman of his age.
If he continues to collect points at his current pace, Ekblad will eventually eclipse Bobby Orr’s 41 points in 1966-67 to become the second-highest scoring blueliner at 18 years old in NHL history.
Third among all rookies in scoring, Ekblad currently paces all first-year defenseman in goals (6), assists (20), points (26), shots (92) and plus/minus rating (+9) in 42 games this season.
Surprising even himself, Ekblad admits that he never intended nor expected to become the offensive juggernaut that he has evolved into so early in his young career.
"Yes, it probably has exceeded my expectations," said Ekblad, who will celebrate his 19th birthday on Feb. 7. "It just comes from playing a good, hard, simple game. At the beginning, I didn’t want to come out and be too offensive and try to lead the rush and stuff like that, but let it come as the year comes on.
"Iâthink it’s gone well. Just trying to be simple and play good defense and be reliable and steady and that leads to being good up front."
Selected as one of only six rookies to compete in the upcoming skills competition at the 2015 NHL All-Star Game, it’s remarkable to think that only a few months ago the discussion surrounding Ekblad was whether or not he would stick with Florida past a nine-game trial.
Still, even amidst a shaky preseason and a few moments of doubt, it only took a few games for the prodigious blueliner to realize that he deserved to share the ice with hockey’s best.
"Since like the second (preseason) game or third game," said Ekblad. "After I got out of the way in Nashville there, that rough first shift, got hit a couple of times pretty good. That was kind of my welcome-to-the-NHL moment and on from there, I just felt like I kind of belonged and felt like I could play in the league, obviously with a lot of help and support from the guys that are in this room."
For Ekblad, the two greatest sources of support this season continue to come from veteran defensemen Brian Campbell and Willie Mitchell.
Campell, 35, has spent the majority of the season as Ekblad’s defensive partner and power-play sidekick while Mitchell, 37, has been working double duty as an off-ice mentor and landlord.
"It’s been great. Him and his wife are two of the best people I’ve ever met," said Ekblad, who recently moved into one of Mitchell’s spare bedrooms. "To welcome me into their home, I was a complete stranger off the bat and get to know each other really well, just enjoy that kind of environment. They’re such great people. His wife is a great cook. She cooks some of the best meals in the world. We had some fish tacos last night; I’ve never had something so good before.
"We have a great time together, saves gas on the way to the rink, a little carpooling. It’s a great experience. Iâlearn a lot from him. He’s a great role model on and off the ice."
Mitchell, meanwhile, is happy to have someone help with the heavy lifting around the house, even if his wife, Megan, wasn’t sold on the arrangement at first.
"I had to convince my wife a little bit," Mitchell said with a laugh. "I send him all the way for milk in Orlando once in a while. All kidding aside, though, it’s been really good. We don’t have any kids so it’s nice to have someone else in the house as well so all the pressure isn’t on me all the time. … I can’t say enough good things about how that’s been."
Yes, it’s hard to say that things could be going much better for Ekblad as he sets out on the second half of his rookie campaign with the playoffs firmly in his sights.
He’s found a home in Florida, and the Panthers, well, they’ve found a star.
"He’s going to the All-Star Game in the skills competition, but he could almost be going to the All-Star Game as an invitee," said Mitchell.
"He’s had that good of a start for us."