Already entering his sixth season, there may be a lot of pressure on Aaron Ekblad’s shoulders if he wants to assert himself as one of the league’s best.
The 2014 first overall pick’s career got off to a great start under the coaching of Gerard Gallant. In 2014-15, Ekblad played 81 of a possible 82 games, gunning home 12 goals and 27 assists, beating out Mark Stone, Johnny Gaudreau, and Filip Forsberg for the Calder Memorial Trophy for the season’s best rookie.
In 2015-16, Ekblad scored three more goals, including six more goals at even strength, made the 2016 NHL All-Star Game, and led the Florida Panthers to first place in the Atlantic Division with 103 points.
With those two seasons under his belt, Ekblad’s expectations rose meteorically but failed to be lived up to. In his first season without Brian Campbell as his defensive partner, his defensive numbers plummeted, with the team giving up 41 more goals with him on the ice in 2016-17.
Ekblad also suffered offensively, taking 43 more shots than the season prior, but scoring six fewer goals and only getting 11 assists across 68 games.
He also struggled with discipline issues, taking a career-high 29 penalties in a season hampered by a concussion injury.
Ekblad did get back to around the same spot in his rookie year, getting 65 points in the last two seasons, his shooting percentages back up in the 7-8.5% range, his plus-minus ratio is back in the positives, and this past season, he solved his disciplinary issues, only taking 22 penalties in the 2018-19 campaign.
Now, the expectations surrounding Ekblad next season are very mixed. While some are still giving him time to mature, others are already labeling Florida’s number five as a bust.
No matter whether the fans are believers or doubters in his game, with his fourth head coach and possibly his fourth potential partner in six years, Ekblad has to give more answers than questions next season.
The issue with Ekblad’s decline defensively has some to do with him playing next to a two-way defenseman in Keith Yandle, rather than the veteran defensive defenseman of Brian Campbell. With Yandle, Ekblad has been forced to take on a more defensive role due to Yandle’s distribution with the puck.
In regards to distribution, Ekblad’s safety with the puck has immensely gotten worse as his NHL career has progressed. In the last two seasons, Ekblad has given the puck away 221 times, averaging giving the puck away 1.34 times per game.
For reference, Ekblad gave the puck away 140 times in his first three seasons, with a per-game average of 0.6 times per game.
Doubling your giveaway amount without much of an improvement from your first two seasons don’t quite add up. Ekblad’s puck play needs to be worked on, or it will continue to hurt both him and his team.
Ekblad now starts roughly 54% of his zone draws in the defensive zone, whereas he started 57% of his zone draws in the offensive zone in his Calder campaign.
This puts a lot more defensive pressure on Ekblad, and his previous two coaches have not done a good job to really groom Ekblad’s game, but rather just hope it works.
Goals like these from Nathan Bastian show why Ekblad’s defensive game really needs more development. In the last game of the season, Ekblad is caught puck watching as Nico Hischier glides through the center.
Neither he or Evgenii Dadonov notices Bastian, who goes underneath Dadonov and goes straight through on goal. Ekblad gives an embarrassing effort of a poke check, Bastian walks right in and scores.
Even when it isn’t with Yandle, there are big issues to Ekblad’s mental bits to his game. He’s been caught puck watching a lot over the last few seasons, and there really hasn’t been a fix to it.
Whether it’s just a lack of addressing it or if Ekblad’s focus on the game is just weak, these issues should be sorted out with two things: a shiny new head coach and goalie combo.
Sergei Bobrovsky’s arrival isn’t going to bail Ekblad out on everything, but he will certainly cut Ekblad a few more breaks than 39-year-old Roberto Luongo or James Reimer did in the last three seasons.
The key will be on how well Ekblad develops under a hockey mind like Joel Quenneville. Quenneville’s no stranger to mentoring young defensemen, as he helped develop Duncan Keith’s game into one of the better defensemen in the NHL.
Keith’s defensive disciplined mixed with Ekblad’s goalscoring talent is certainly worthy of multiple All-Star nominations, and maybe a Norris Trophy nomination.
Now, it’ll take time for Ekblad to truly develop into the player he could be in Quenneville’s system, which does benefit two-way defensemen as Ekblad improve.
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To put a true All-Star expectation on Ekblad, there are three things I believe need to happen.
First, he absolutely has to cut down on the turnovers. Giving the puck away 122 times in 82 games is woeful, and can’t be acceptable amongst this organization if playoffs are the goal.
For reference, Ekblad was fourth in the NHL in giveaways last season. This absolutely cannot repeat, and he isn’t the only one who needs this advice.
Secondly, Ekblad should focus on reaching north of 40 points. He hasn’t hit that milestone yet, and if he really wants to prove his worth in the offensive zone, Ekblad has to his this mark.
Finally, which is a build off of the last expectation, Ekblad needs to grow as more of a playmaker offensively.
He takes a lot more shots than he should, with his shooting percentage much lower than expected. Without hitting 30 in assists once, that surely should be something Ekblad can achieve in 2019.
The talent and tools are all there for defenseman Aaron Ekblad, but now is the time for him to put it all together and blossom into the player we expected from the moment we drafted him.