After taking ridicule from the organization and fan base for an offseason, Aaron Ekblad took matters into his own hands to turn around his standing by having a solid fourth season.
On June 28th, 2014, the Florida Panthers made a selection that had established they were all in on stirring up a winning atmosphere in South Florida. With the first overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, the Cats selected Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad. After spending three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League as a Colt, Ekblad was ready to take on the challenge of a spotlighted National Hockey League star.
In his first season, he scored 12 goals, assisted on 27 goals, and collected 39 points in an impressive rookie season. Along with the statistics, he collected the Calder Memorial Trophy that’s given each year to the ‘best rookie,’ which he proved to be. While it seemed the career for Ekblad would only progress, he surprisingly took some downfalls in the past few years (most notably in his third season).
To fast forward, prior to the 2016-2017 season, Ekblad joined Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck to play for Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey tournament in Toronto, Canada. While the opportunity seemed great, things started to turn for the worse for #5.
After missing a 4-3 loss to Russia, Panthers doctors had determined Ekblad had suffered a neck injury, which was first believed by reporters to be a concussion. Panthers general manager at the time, Tom Rowe, confirmed Aaron’s readiness for the start of the regular season when he said: “I don’t think we’re overly concerned about it.”
Even though Rowe labeled the injury as minor, the damage to Ekblad had continued to pile up. He also suffered 2 concussions in the past 25 months. With entering the 2016-2017 NHL season, the effect of the incidences had finally shown on the play of the Canadian defenseman. Following the World Cup of Hockey tournament, he had arguably the worst season of his NHL career, posting career-lows in games (68), goals (10), assists (11), but those stats don’t compare to his hideous plus-minus stat. After posting a minimum of +12 in the category for the past 2 seasons, Ekblad had posted a ghastly -23.
To top off a nightmare season, after suffering another concussion on March 12, using the feeling of impatience, the Panthers rushed Ekblad back 11 days later, to then watch him suffer a neck injury, ultimately ending his season. At this point, the future didn’t look bright for the young Florida D-Man.
Entering the 2017-2018 season, new standards were set for the 22-year-old. With lower team expectations and a fresh start, this was supposed to be the year Aaron gets back on path of being the James Norris Trophy candidate Florida was hoping for. In the upcoming season, Ekblad stepped up to the task, performing some of the best hockey of his career.
New role, new expectations, and more responsibility was put on the shoulders of the Panthers’ assistant captain. In that season, he played a full season of 82 games for the first time in his career. He also posted an impressive career-high of 16 goals (ranked 2nd among defenseman across the NHL), along with 22 assists, and an incredible increase in his plus-minus of a +9. This may not have been a career-best for #5, but it was certainly a big step in the right direction.
One specific aspect that helped Aaron bounce-back was a new body behind the bench. On June 12, 2017, the Florida Panthers had announced that they hired a new head coach. This new head coach happened to be San Jose Sharks assistant coach Bob Boughner, who also happened to be Ekblad’s neighbor and coach growing up.
He impressed the Panthers organization with his plan for success that included one thing that helped Aaron the most: getting defensemen more involved in the play. With this plan, Aaron was finally able to be more in on the offense, bringing up his numbers, along with his confidence, helping to uplift the play of the Canadian native.
After having a not-so-great season the previous year, Aaron Ekblad’s future was being questioned by many. He took the initiative by having an incredibly solid fourth season, emphasizing he’s the defenseman to lead the Florida Panthers franchise to success.