Florida Panthers: 2019 is Make or Break for Aaron Ekblad

For years, Aaron Ekblad has been viewed as the best defenseman on the Florida Panthers. The Canadian native has been on the top defensive pairing for the last four seasons, with 134 points in 309 career games, a net +/- of +16, and two all-star appearances.

Whilst these numbers can be skewed by Ekblad’s horrendous 2016-17 season, where the defenseman finished with a -23, a career-low in goals and assists by a clear margin, and dealt with a concussion for most of the second half, these stats aren’t terrible.

Ekblad has been voted an all-star twice, back in ’14-15 and ’15-16, where the Florida Panthers owned a solid defensive unit that was ranked amongst the top across the NHL.

It’s easy to forget that Aaron was taken first overall, and he should have the same expectations of an Auston Matthews or a Taylor Hall to perform. While Ekblad is surely better than the second last defenseman taken first overall, Erik Johnson, it should be time for Ek to live up to these expectations in year five.

The question is, which Ekblad will we see this season? Will it be the young prodigy from his first two seasons or the disappointment from his last two seasons?

It could be said that the problem is the defensive pairing between Keith Yandle and Aaron Ekblad. Both are offensive-defensemen pushing up the ice for points, and both are a little unsafe at the back. The two cemented themselves as Bob Boughner’s top defensive pairing; the problem is, there’s a concerning lack of defense.

Ekblad’s first two seasons were played alongside Brian Campbell, with the occasional Erik Gudbranson and Willie Mitchell. All three of them have one thing in common: all were defensive-defensemen, so Ekblad became more comfortable pushing up and taking shots, with less responsibility after a turnover to get back.

When Yandle came in, neither were really prepared to sit deeper, and their numbers suffered seriously.

With this, Ekblad’s become a streaky defenseman since partnering up with Yandle, and while season one was absolutely shocking, season two wasn’t by any means the Ekblad that mirrored the first two seasons; 85 points in 160 games and a +30 rating.

Aaron did return to the upper 30s in his point tally but fell to a 9 in his +/-. Some of this can be put on positioning, some can be put on a bad matchup, but Ekblad hasn’t been up to par in the last two seasons.

These are the kind of plays that Ekblad isn’t used to covering, and in result, he struggles to cope with. Against the Dallas Stars, Yandle is caught well out of position as the pass gets behind to winger Alexander Radulov.

Instantly, Ekblad has a decision to make, something he didn’t have to do with Campbell usually playing behind. Ekblad needs to either commit to the puck or the pass, but goes flat-footed and fails to make an impact on the play. Radulov plays the puck to Jamie Benn, who has the goal at his mercy.

For Ekblad to succeed, changes needed to be made in the offseason between the defensive pairing and the head coach. Boughner has attempted changes to the defensive scheme, which failed when the Panthers dropped their game at Xcel Energy Arena, 6-1 to the Minnesota Wild.

Whether Boughner decides to play Ekblad with Mike Matheson, Ian McCoshen, or Mark Pysyk this season, it’ll be an interesting decision to make and will be a good storyline to follow as the season progresses.

In a year where the Panthers look to seriously break through in the Eastern Conference, this is going to be a massive factor this season.

There’s definitely the offensive spark to Aaron Ekblad’s play that can almost make up for the defensive mishaps. Ekblad finished with a career-high in goals this season (16), with his best shooting percentage at an 8.5%.

Ekblad is a consistent shooter for Florida and has never been afraid to fling the puck on net, with 189 shots on goal this past season, a clear leader in shots on goal for a defenseman. He also led the Cats in shots two seasons ago with his career-high of 225.

While it’s easy to point out how they don’t complement each other defensively, it’s beneficial for Ekblad to play with Yandle to diverse his offense going forward.

On this play, Ekblad glides right into the Buffalo Sabres‘ right flank and is brilliantly picked out by his defensive partner. Ekblad roofs the shot past Robin Lehner, but all credit goes to the heads-up ability of him and Yandle, to both react and make a play right off the faceoff dot.

Ekblad’s movement around the attacking zone is also very impressive for a defenseman, not a lot can just slide right into a shot the way Ekblad did on that goal.

Aaron’s major problem going forward has to be his lack of consistency. Ekblad’s stats aren’t bad, nearly 40 points a season for a defenseman is nothing to be ashamed of, but for his personal expectations, he should be producing more.

For a defenseman with a near 50% CF%, who takes as many shots as Ekblad, the lack of consistent goal threat can be a problem.

Usually, defending is learned with age and experience, but for Ekblad’s case, there really isn’t an answer. He’s still only 22, but at the same time, this will be his fifth season in the Panthers organization, and the expectations for the Panthers need to be achieved this year to take steps forward as a franchise in this league.

While his offensive stats can draw a lot of comparisons to P.K. Subban, one of the top defensemen in the league, he’s still got some time to go. He’s just entered the big money pay-cheque of his 8-year, $60 million extension way back in 2016, and now it’s time to make it count.

Ekblad is still into his early twenties and has a lot of room to grow, but being the best defenseman on a playoff contender holds a lot of responsibility and pressure on one’s shoulders.

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This season ultimately is make-or-break for the young Canadian, and I have no doubt that Ekblad can propel Florida towards postseason glory in the years to come.