NEW YORK – Chatting with Aaron Ekblad is like interviewing the senior class president, who also happens to be the valedictorian, for a job opening.
He’s polished, with on-message responses that might have sounded aloof were they not couched in the confident charm of a top prospect with teen idol looks. He’s got a politician’s ability to concurrently correct the record and humbly self promote.
For example: Was he nervous about the NHL Draft Combine?
“Not sure where you read that, but I wasn’t nervous at all,” says Ekblad. “I’m a calm person. But I wasn’t too excited to get into the physical testing, because it’s never fun to doing that kind of stuff. But it was a fun experience.”
When he talks about honesty in his combine interviews with NHL teams, was it with a “here I am, take me or take a pass” emphasis?
“I wouldn’t say that’s kind of the vibe. That’s kind of standoffish, and I’d never be standoffish with a National Hockey League team,” he said. “But in a similar way to that, this is me. You know what you’re going to get with me. I’m not someone that’s going to do something crazy off the ice.”
That’s quite a transition game. But as any hockey scout that gawked at Ekblad will tell you, that’s one of his strong suits.
Ekblad, 18, is a defenseman for the OHL Barrie Colts. He was granted “exceptional player status” by Hockey Canada to allow him to play in that league at 15 years old.
“When you look at all the guys that have had the chance to do it – John Tavares, Conor McDavid and myself – all of them are going to say it’s first class, the best experience we can get,” he said.
Did that exceptional status make him a target? “Quite a bit, yeah. I had a couple good battles with guys. With that target, comes a challenge. And I rose to the challenge a couple of times,” he said.
Because of that experience, Ekblad is seen as one of the most NHL-ready prospects in the 2014 Draft, scheduled for Friday and Saturday in Philadelphia. Of course, having a 6-3, 213-pound frame and a veteran’s composure on the blue line doesn’t hurt his stock.
“The guy shaves his chest every week. He’s a man-child,” said world junior teammate Matt Dumba in an interview with Yahoo Sports during last year’s tournament in Sweden.
Ekblad is expected to go first overall, either to the Florida Panthers or to the team that trades up to snag the No. 1 pick. “It would mean a lot. It’s a lifelong dream. I can’t say I’d have it any other way,” said Ekblad. “But you ultimately have to prove you can play in this league.”
He would be the first defenseman taken first overall since 2006, when Erik Johnson was taken No. 1 by the St. Louis Blues. (The Panthers are no doubt hoping that the forwards they leave on the board don’t turn out to be Jonathan Toews or Phil Kessel, both taken after Johnson in 2006.)
The player he idolizes wasn’t taken until the 53rd pick in the 1989 NHL Draft, but he went on to become the best defenseman of his generation: Nicklas Lidstrom, the retired Detroit Red Wings star.
“He was a special player. Everyone says he’s a great person off the ice, too,” said Ekblad.
Hearing Ekblad talking about his defensive style is like hearing a checklist of Lidstrom’s attributes: Attention to details; keeping things simple; knowing when to jump into the offensive flow while still remaining defensively responsible.
Of course, Lidstrom was the Perfect Human, and Ekblad is a mere mortal. He can only strive for perfection, and he has: Working hard on his shot in the last year as a power play point man, while also refining his skating ability and explosiveness in his stride.
“I’m a big dude. Big feet. I have to learn to move well, transition well,” he said.
“I’m persistent and determined to be a good hockey player and person.”
The scouts call him “NHL ready,” and Ekblad believes he is. But he doesn’t believe that “NHL ready” and “ready for stardom” are synonymous. “I don’t expect to come in next year and be Drew Doughty. I expect to play a solid defensive game,” he said.
That’s the minimum expected from the team that drafts Aaron Ekblad; but from his serenity to his confidence to his charm, he’s got much more to offer the Florida Panthers – or whoever ends up taking him.
“I love sunshine. But I don’t mind snow either,” said Ekblad.
Ever the politician.