Aaron Ekblad relishes pressure that comes with being Panthers’ No. 1 pick

Aaron Ekblad (middle) poses for a photo with team officials after being selected as the number one overall pick to the Florida Panthers.

Bill Streicher/Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA — The focus of draft drama for nearly two months, Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon saved a little for the podium.

Florida, which fielded offers for the No. 1 selection, opted to retain the pick and selected defenseman Aaron Ekblad from Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League.

When Tallon introduced the selection, he took his time, with long pauses in revealing what turned out to be not much of a surprise.

"I made Ekblad sweat a little," Tallon said. "I thought this is show business. This is entertainment, isn’t it?"

For Ekblad, it was equal parts exciting and terrifying. With all the trade talk involving the Florida, Ekblad had no idea if he’d end up a Panther, let alone the first overall pick.

And when Tallon paused after announcing Florida would be selecting a player from the Ontario Hockey League, a moment of panic set in.

"I was freaking out there for a second when he stopped," Ekblad said. "Obviously I was hoping for the best, hoping for my name to be called. But I could only hold on for so long."

The anxiety is not something Florida should expect to see from their newest addition, though.

The 6-foot-4, 216-pound Ekblad is regarded as a solid, all-around blueliner. He’s sound in his own end, handles and passes the puck well, has a rocket for a shot and is mature beyond his years. Ekblad summed up his style as "strong, responsible defense."

Many scouts considered Ekblad the consensus No. 1 pick despite being ranked second in the final rankings by NHL’s Central Scouting Service.

Granted exceptional status by the OHL to play in the league as a 15-year-old, Ekblad registered 40 goals and 76 assists in three seasons with the Colts.

Tallon described Ekblad as "18 going on 30."

New head coach Gerard Gallant caught himself immediately in describing the defenseman, switching his wording from "kid" to "man" when talking about Ekblad.

"When you get a chance to take a player like that, you don’t pass up that too many times," Gallant told FOXSportsFlorida.com. "Yeah, there was a lot of talk going around about trade options, but I was pretty confident our team was going to pick him and we got a great player."

As for that trade talk, it turned out to be nothing more than chatter. Tallon and his staff decided by noon Friday there would be no deals for the top pick

The two teams out of about 8-10 that surfaced with the most enticing deals were the Vancouver Canucks, who parted ways with center Ryan Kesler and defenseman Jason Garrison earlier in the day, and the draft host, the Philadelphia Flyers.

"It was close," Tallon said of trading the pick. "We had a couple of really substantial offers that were very good. It kept me up all night last night."

One component of the Vancouver offer included Garrison, who provided a gun from the point on Florida’s power play two seasons ago. The blueliner registered a career-high 16 goals alongside Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell in 2011-12.

But the Panthers staff met in the morning and agreed picking Ekblad was the best long-term option for the franchise.

Tallon said the Canucks were the first team to make a legitimate offer, and that came approximately a month ago, when new Vancouver general manager Jim Benning reached out.

Philadelphia joined the trade talk later, with a deal that likely included a first-round pick. But the Flyers were at No. 17, which was a little too deep in the draft for Tallon’s tastes.

"It was good," Tallon said. "It was tough, obviously enticing."

But more enticing to the former NHL defenseman is assembling a core of highly touted young defenseman, who could develop into an elite group in the near future.

Florida now has a dozen defenseman under the age of 23 who are at least 6-foot-3. And there’s an equal balance of left-handed and right-handed shots.

"When you look at the NHL teams, the demand most teams need and are always looking for are defensemen — especially right-shot defensemen," Tallon said. "We’ve got a lot of them. I like our positioning as far as our defensive core for the next long time."

After his season with Barrie ended, Ekblad turned his attention to NHL teams to see how he might fit in. He always had an eye on Florida.

"They have a young core and they want a Stanley Cup," Ekblad said. "This D core in a couple years is going to be pretty good. And, of course, if I am a part of that, I hope to help out."

Ekblad may have the chance this season. With Florida desperate for a top shot at the point on their power play, the prospect fan fill a huge void.

But for someone who has already sweated through smaller things, stepping in and high expectations like contributing immediately is not something Ekblad shies away from.

"That’s the burden of expectation. I chase it," Ekblad said. "I want the burden of expectation, that feel for motivation. I want to succeed under that."


Florida will open the second day of the draft with the 32nd overall selection and Tallon believed the pick would probably be used to draft a forward. Beyond that, the Panthers will have selections in the fourth round (92nd overall), fifth round (143rd overall) and seventh-round (182nd overall).

You can follow Erin Brown on Twitter @rinkside or email her at erinbrownfla@gmail.com.