In his sixth year with the Florida Panthers, defenseman Aaron Ekblad was looking to progress offensively under his new coaching staff.
Under Joel Quenneville, Aaron Ekblad took another step in the right direction, both offensive and defensively. Ekblad has always been a goal-getter, but this season, it was the polar opposite for the right-handed defenseman.
In a new system, Ekblad found himself raking in the assists with 36 next to his name – a personal best. Furthermore, in just 67 games – due to the shortening of the season – Ekblad registered 41 points, good for a career-high. Had the season played out to a full 82 games, Ekblad may have hit the 50-point mark for the first time in his career.
Regardless, the 6’4″ native of Windsor, Ontario, has established himself as a polished, two-way defenseman. Ekblad has demonstrated that he can score, evident by the five consecutive seasons in which he put up ten or more goals. However, he’s also capable of playing in a shutdown role, matching up against the opposition’s best players while keeping them intact.
Finding a defenseman with all of these qualities is hard to discover, but when you have one – especially one that’s locked in for the next five years on a reasonable deal – you have to play to his strengths. The Florida Panthers have started to figure this out after a few coaching changes, and are now reaping the benefits of Ekblad’s game.
As mentioned, what’s unique about his game is his versatility and ability to play in multiple roles as assigned by his coach. Ekblad can log heavy minutes at even strength, but more importantly, he can also play in penalty kill situations when his team needs a clear. Likewise, Ekblad has featured on the Panthers’ second PP unit and has done a good job manning the blue line there.
He’s even capable of playing on the top unit alongside the likes of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, owning the necessary tool kit to quarterback the first unit with the top weapons by his side.
Unfortunately, his former defense partner, Keith Yandle, is still penciled in as the D-man on the top unit, despite his inability to move the puck quick enough. Many, like myself, have called for a swap on the top unit to spark a change, and with Ekblad’s creativity and vision, it may be enough to provide that much-needed spark heading into the qualifying round.
Paired alongside MacKenzie Weegar for most of the season, and otherwise recognized as the Panthers’ best defense pairing, the Cats are going to have to receive that same type of play that they saw from the two throughout the season if they are going to survive life in their own zone against the New York Islanders.
The Ekblad-Weegar pairing has undoubtedly been the lone bright spot on the Panthers’ blue line this season, and are the only ones capable of keeping the zone clean and tidy throughout their upcoming series. The duo has not only been the best on their own team, but they have been one of the best D pairings across the entire league, statistically speaking.
Not only regarded as one of the best players on the Cats, but as one of their leaders, a lot lies on the shoulders of Aaron Ekblad moving forward as the Panthers look to advance to the first round (16-team playoffs) for the first time since 2015-16. If the Cats are going to have any chance of advancing past the Islanders, then they’re going to have to get one heck of a series from their No. 1 defenseman in all three zones.
In his first season under the Joel Quenneville era, Aaron Ekblad took a big step to solidify his worth as a top-pairing, star-studded defenseman. Despite some of the obstacles that he faced in the past, Ekblad has left them in the rear-view mirror with confidence, using them strictly to grow. If he continues this play in the play-in series and beyond, the former No. 1 overall pick could very well win a Norris Trophy in the not-so-distant future.