When on form, Aaron Ekblad can be one of the best defensemen in the NHL. The 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons were when he showcased his rise to stardom.
His real talents lie going forward, when he totaled a combined 75 points in two seasons, rivaling the likes of Victor Hedman, Dougie Hamilton, and Kevin Shattenkirk. Ekblad has the tools that defenders who want to stride for winning the Norris Trophy in their primes salivate and dream over. Aaron has this skill set at just 21 years of age.
So who enabled Aaron Ekblad to all-star status, how was he able to achieve such great stats at such a young age? The answer is simple: Brian Campbell.
Brian Campbell was a player brought in from Chicago to help the Panthers push for the post season back in the 2011 season. His veteran tenacity added with his reliable defense and solid passing made him an anchor in front of Jose Theodore, as the Cats won the Southeast division ahead of the Washington Capitals.
As his age grew, his involvement going forward diminished, and he accepted to play a more defensive role next to a defenseman he saw so much promise in at the time (Aaron Ekblad). With his reliability at the back, Ekblad could press higher up the ice, contributing to the majority of the offense. Campbell’s defensive abilities turned Ekblad from a promising 1st overall pick, to a star in record time.
Since Soupy’s return to Chicago and his retirement, Ekblad hasn’t been the same. He’s normally been placed with Keith Yandle as his defensive partner, which isn’t suiting to Ekblad’s playing style. No disrespect to Keith Yandle, but Aaron has struggled defensively due to Yandle’s willingness to move forward, pushing Aaron to hang back and play more of a defensive defenseman type role.
Ekblad’s play has also regressed from multiple concussions he has faced throughout his career, such as the one he suffered back in March 2017 against Tampa Bay. He ended up playing through it, as the decision was made to try and salvage some hope in making the post season (which didn’t happen).
With all hope put into the 21-year-old, he should develop into a two-way player with the ability to anchor an entire defensive core. Right now, however, both he and the Florida Panthers need reliability at the back.
With Roberto Luongo and James Reimer currently out with injuries, Harri Sateri has filled in for the time being. As great as he’s played thus far, he’s faced too many shots, ultimately left hung to dry on numerous occasions.
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The answer may have to be to reshuffle some defensive lines to seriously strengthen the team. The February 26th deadline is coming fast, and one particular team have already shown to be sellers, shedding off an unsettled Anthony Duclair to the Chicago Blackhawks.
This indeed is the Arizona Coyotes, whose offseason retool in the past to win now has – to say the least – failed. The ideal defensive partner for Ekblad could currently lie in the deserts of Glendale, and could be almost exactly like the previous partner.
Niklas Hjalmarsson, 6’3”, 196 pounds, and one of the key former pieces to one of the most dominant NHL teams in the past millennium, the Chicago Blackhawks. Like Campbell, Hjalmarsson has embraced the culture of a Blackhawks defenseman; reliable, strong, and great on the penalty kill.
He’s only been in the negatives of +/- back in his 13 games in 2007-08, and since then being in the teens and even twenties in six of his seasons as a Blackhawk. He’s also been pretty solid in the CF% (Corsi For Percentage) department, usually striking in the 52-53% range (his highest being 55.8%).
Hjalmarsson has often sat behind many point getters, especially the talented forwards in Chicago during their cup runs. Even now in Arizona, he plays next to another exciting two-way defenseman in Jakob Chychrun.
Hjalmarsson’s contract and Ekblad’s age align perfectly for the team to have success. Hjalmarsson is under contract until the 2019/2020 season and will be a UFA at season’s end. At that point, Niklas will be 32, almost 33, and Aaron will be 24.
If his ship sails smoothly, Ekblad will be entering his prime and Hjalmarsson will likely be on his way out of the league. Ekblad will have embraced two more seasons to grow with a veteran by his side, and should be ready to take the next step in his game.
He’ll be pressing higher up the ice, like he use to with Campbell, but this time being with Hjalmarsson at his side. Meanwhile, Hjalmarsson could hang back, covering for Aaron at all costs while Ekblad runs the offense on the top pair. Niklas would also be an upgrade for the Panthers penalty kill which struggled early on this season.
The Panthers would likely have to consider moving either Alex Petrovic, Nick Bjugstad, or Ian McCoshen plus a few other mid-level prospects to have a shot at the former Blackhawk. Although, his price will and should be low with the Coyotes set to sell and rebuild again. If Aaron Ekblad is to return to his best form for the good of himself and the good of the team, Dale Tallon should look to purchase a defensive defenseman at the deadline or in the offseason.