Aaron Ekblad Florida Panthers Calder Candidate


During the 2014 NHL Entry Draft on June 27th, the Florida Panthers held the first overall choice for only the second time in franchise history. And like the Cats decided to do back in 1994, they decided to pick up a defenseman: Aaron Ekblad. Fast-forward six months and twenty-six games into the 2014-15 NHL season and that same defenseman is leading the Panthers charge unlike anyone had thought less than halfway through the season. Because of the rookie’s hot start to the NHL season, some NHL experts and Panthers fans are already considering Ekblad to be a leading candidate to win the Calder trophy as the league’s best first-year player. Does the hashtag #EkbladForCalder look good? Sure it does.


Aaron Ekblad’s Junior Career

Aaron Ekblad was drafted first overall in the Ontario Hockey League, but unlike most players, he was the first defenseman to be given “exceptional player” status, which allows you to play in the OHL a year earlier than your eligibility. The only other players that were given exceptional status were John Tavares, Connor McDavid, and Sean Day. Ekblad was drafted by the Barrie Colts and played all three years of his junior career in Barrie. During the first two years of his junior career, Ekblad recorded 63 points in 117 games played, including 17 goals. That averages out to roughly 0.54 points-per-game. Then in his third and final year in the OHL, the newly named captain of the Colts broke out in a huge way, scoring 53 points in 58 games played, scoring 17 goals in the process. Throughout his junior career, he was a +6 over three seasons played, including +11 in 2013-14. Out of his many accolades, he played for Team Canada on four occasions, winning gold during the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament (IH18) while scoring four points in five games (2 goals, 2 assists). During the 2014 OHL Coaches Poll, Ekblad received top honors during numerous categories, including best shot, hardest shot, best offensive defenseman, and best defensive defenseman. He was also named to the OHL First All-Star Team. The young defenseman’s final season in the OHL wrapped up a very memorable OHL career.


The Draft and the Florida Panthers

While Buffalo finished the 2013-14 season as the worst team in the NHL and had the best chance of winning the draft lottery, the Florida Panthers ended up winning the draft lottery and, therefore, the honors of drafting first overall. In the days and hours leading up to the draft, there were many offers on the table for Florida, including a last-minute mega-deal offered from the Philadelphia Flyers. Luckily, the Cats played it safe as it was announced that Aaron Ekblad would be heading to the Panthers with the first overall pick. After the draft, Ekblad showed his mature-personality through his interviews. “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” (ESPN.com). Dale Tallon definitely showed a lot of praise for the team’s youngest defenseman following the draft. “We are thrilled to have selected Aaron with the No. 1 pick,” Tallon said. “He is a strong, smart and physically mature defenseman who skates well and can play at both ends of the ice” (ESPN.com). After being selected first overall, huge expectations were pinned onto the young defenseman. And as he has done since junior hockey, he lived up to the expectations as the season began on October 9th.


NHL Career

In the days leading up to the NHL season, the coaching staff was undecided about where to play Aaron Ekblad. They would either place him alongside Brian Campbell on the top pairing or with captain Willie Mitchell on the second pairing. And after fellow-defenseman Dmitry Kulikov found chemistry with Mitchell, Ekblad received the honor to play on the top pairing with Campbell. Throughout the first twenty-six games of the season, Aaron Ekblad is tied with forward Nick Bjustad for the team lead with eighteen points (5 goals, 13 assists) for the Panthers. Offensively, he has just been stellar. Ekblad scored a career-high three points (three assists) on December 6th vs. Buffalo. But on the defensive side of the game, he has been more than stellar. In fact, he has only taken four minor penalties and has been a +6 through all twenty-six games of the season. That stat alone is stellar on a Panthers team that can give up more goals than they score on some nights. So on both sides of the puck, Ekblad has found a level of consistency that the Panthers have not had in a defensemen in a long time. In comparison, fellow young guns Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson are still struggling to find their game after being drafted in 2009 and 2010 respectively. As Tallon often says, a defenseman will hit his full potential around the 250-300 game mark. If Ekblad is playing this good only twenty-six games into his NHL career, then one could only imagine his potential in two or three seasons.


Why Will Aaron Ekblad Win The Calder

This year’s rookie class is one of the strongest in recent memory. From Tampa’s JonathanDrouin to Nashville’s FilipForsburg, there are a lot of good rookies in the league this year. AaronEkblad has the potential to become the first Calder Trophy. At this time,Forsburg is leading all rookies in scoring with 27 points, and is nine points behind Dallas’ Tyler Seguin for the league lead. In 2013, the Panthers’ JonathanHuberdeau won the Calder Trophy. WhileHuberdeau had a fine season, what separated him from the rest of the rookies was how much he meant to the team. Players like Brandon Sadd and Brendan Gallagher have played with some of the top players in the league like Jonathan Toews and Max Pacioretty. For the majority of the season, Huberdeau played on a line with Drew Shore and Peter Mueller. While no disrespect to either of those two players, none of them are a bona-fide superstar like Toews or Pacioretty, making Huberdeau’s 31 points in 48 games even more impressive. With Aaron Ekblad, not only is the 18 year-old tied for the team lead in points, he is the leading point scorer for all rookie defensemen, eight points ahead of New Jersey’s Dameon Severson with three fewer games played. Ekblad plays on the top pairing with Brian Campbell and plays more than 20:00 TOI on most nights. As most fans would agree with, he has rarely made any mistakes throughout his short NHL career. He has shown the ability to join in with the offense on the rush while still being able to get back in time to prevent an odd-man rush. Ekblad is a very special player and many would be shocked if he is not at least amongst the finalists for the Calder Trophy.


As soon as Aaron Ekblad was drafted last June, many knew that he has the tools to become the next great defenseman in the NHL. And now, Ekblad is living up to the hype. He is the Panthers best defenseman twenty-six games into the season, and he might finish the season with some additional hardware as a result.


Might as well start trending #EkbladForCalder before everyone else does.

Do you think Aaron Ekblad has what it takes to win the Calder Trophy? Let us know in the comments below as input is greatly appreciated. Thanks for reading.