Following a dreadful 2016-17 campaign, Aaron Ekblad was looking to bounce-back the following year, while leading the youthful Florida Panthers at the same time.
Aaron Ekblad’s third season in the NHL (2016-17) was just rough all across the board. Between the injuries, woeful defensive play, and state that the Panthers were in, nothing was bouncing right for the then 21-year-old defenseman. Fast forward a season later, and all of that suddenly changed.
2017-18 offered something new for Aaron Ekblad: new coach, new defensive system, and a chance to finally lead the Cats. With the reigns officially handed over to the ‘young core,’ Ekblad was no longer that rookie looking up to veterans for advice.
Despite his youthful age, he was now expected to be the guy who others would turn to in times of need (both on and off the ice). Leaving 2016-17 in the rear mirror, Aaron was called upon to not only lead the Cats, but to also silence the critics who wrote him off based on one backwards year.
While his fourth season in the league started on a quiet note, Ekblad managed to make some noise as the season progressed. His hottest period of hockey was easily from February 3rd – February 17th, where the Canadian native registered 8 points (3G, 5A) in only 6 games. Aaron capped off the year taking part in his first-full 82 game season, notching 16G, 22A, and 38 points all together, falling just one point short of his career-high in points (39).
Ekblad’s 16 goals on the year was best for 2nd in the league, tied for 2nd with the likes of
by his side. What’s impressive to note is while Aaron lacked in the assist category, he purely made it up with goals. Speaking of goals, some of Aaron’s goals were pretty impressive too, like this highlight-reel goal he scored against the
back on March 19th:
Throughout the 2017-18 season, Aaron also learned how to play more effectively with Keith Yandle, which was one thing the two were struggling with at the beginning of the year. It took some time for the two to mesh together, but once they did, it was a beautiful sight to see. With Aaron being an offensive-minded defenseman, being paired with another defender like himself isn’t always easy to adjust with.
The two love jumping forward in play, and offering the offense another scoring weapon on the ice. However, what Yandle and Ekblad quickly learned as partners was that both couldn’t possibly jump up in the play while on the ice together.
One would have to stay back and cover for the other, while the latter could move forward and join the attack. The two figured out a plan, and one that would designate Aaron to be Keith Yandle’s safety net at times, while Yandle could do what he does best: jump forward in play and move the puck forward.
Furthermore, considering that Aaron is Florida’s best defenseman, it only makes sense to find him a defensive partner that compliments his playing style. While Yandle and Ekblad figured each other out during the 2nd half of the season, keeping Yandle on Ekblad’s line will only hinder Aaron’s offensive ability further. We know that Aaron is at his best when paired with a defensive-defenseman, which is what we saw with Brian Campbell three seasons ago.
The possibility of Dale Tallon acquiring another top 4, defensive-defenseman could very much be in play, especially if Dale wants to get more out of Ekblad offensively. The next step that Aaron needs to take is hitting the 50-60 point mark, which he’s yet to do in his career so far. Raking in $7.5M annually and holding the title of ‘former first overall pick,’ it’s time for Ekblad to be among the ‘cream of the crop’ for defensemen, and the only way to do that is by putting up the numbers.
Ekblad can certainly reach that mark in a full season if healthy, but what’s key to note is that it’ll only come with a different defensive partner, and a partner who will allow Aaron to roam free when on the ice, while covering for him defensively at all times.
Aaron’s fourth season in the NHL wasn’t a bad one by any means. Ekblad still showed flashes of his former self, and gained more confidence as the season progressed. A defensive-defenseman and tweaks in his usage is ultimately what’s going to spark him offensively, which will give him the best possible chance of succeeding while on the ice.
In closing, it was important for Aaron to regain his confidence after his dreadful third season. It’s safe to say that his fourth year in the NHL was a solid bounce-back performance. Moreover, heading into his fifth season, the time for taking the next step as a player couldn’t come at a more crucial time in his career. If Ekblad wants to be considered as ‘one of the best,’ he’s going to have to prove it in his fifth career NHL campaign. Be sure to keep an eye on Aaron Ekblad next year, as he looks to take the next big step in his journey to becoming one of the best defensemen in the league.