Aaron Ekblad embraces 'cool challenge' of NHL stardom as 18-year-old Panthers rookie

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Aaron Ekblad embraces 'cool challenge' of NHL stardom as 18-year-old Panthers rookie
Aaron Ekblad embraces 'cool challenge' of NHL stardom as 18-year-old Panthers rookie

When Willie Mitchell bought a house on the water in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., he invited Aaron Ekblad to live in a spare bedroom for the season. Mitchell is the 37-year-old captain of the Florida Panthers. Ekblad is the 18-year-old rookie the Panthers drafted first overall in June. Mitchell treats Ekblad more like a brother than a son, even if Ekblad is young enough to be his son.

The water is Mitchell’s therapy. He fishes to clear his head at home in British Columbia. He doesn’t have a boat in Florida yet, but he does have two jet skis. Mitchell told Ekblad he could use them whenever he wanted, but to make sure he flushed them after he was done because saltwater could ruin the engine. Ekblad asked Mitchell to show him how to do it. “He always wants to learn new stuff,” Mitchell said.

Even more impressive than Ekblad's point total has been his defensive prowess as a teenager. (AP)
Even more impressive than Ekblad's point total has been his defensive prowess as a teenager. (AP)
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When Mitchell showed him how to do it, well …

Mitchell looked at Ekblad; Ekblad looked at Mitchell.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

It was between a morning skate and a game. But it was Florida, and the sun was shining, and they had eaten their pregame meal, and there was time to kill. “I was going to nap, he wasn’t,” Mitchell said, smiling. “What kind of 18-year-old doesn’t sleep in the afternoon?”

They went out for about a half-hour. Nothing crazy. Nothing dangerous. They just cruised up and down the canals, looking at the boats, enjoying the scenery, getting ready for the game by getting away from it.

“Of course he’s had a great, great start, had some big moments,” Mitchell said. “It’s nice being around someone like that when you’re older, too, because it kind of reinvigorates you. You kind of live it through him again. It’s a lot of fun.”

* * * * *

It’s good to be Aaron Ekblad. It’s good to be around Aaron Ekblad and his combination of maturity and youth, poise and skill. He has five goals and 18 points in his first 28 games in the NHL – third among rookies, first among rookie defensemen – while averaging 21:56 of ice time and playing a top-four role. He’s a reason the Panthers are competing for a playoff spot.

“He doesn’t play like an 18-year-old,” said goaltender Roberto Luongo. “He plays like he’s been in the league 18 years.”

Nothing fazes him. His welcome-to-the-NHL moment came Dec. 2 when the Panthers played for the first time in Detroit. He grew up across the river in Windsor, Ont., going to games at Joe Louis Arena, rooting for the Red Wings, idolizing Nicklas Lidstrom. He had family and friends in the stands. When he lined up for the opening faceoff, he found himself across from Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen and Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg – the guys he used to watch. But listen to how he described it. No awe. No sense of accomplishment.

Ekblad grew up in Windsor and said his first game in nearby Detroit was ''a really special, surreal feeling.'' (AP)
Ekblad grew up in Windsor and said his first game in nearby Detroit was ''a really special, surreal feeling.'' (AP)

“Just a really special, surreal feeling,” Ekblad said. “Not an ‘I made it’ feeling or anything like that, but just more of a cool challenge. Just the realization that this is where I am and this is the kind of challenge that I’m going to face and I want to rise to the challenge.”

Ekblad scored what turned out to be the winning goal that night.

He has been doing this stuff all his short life. He was the second 15-year-old in the Ontario Hockey League to be granted exceptional player status to be eligible for the Priority Selection – John Tavares was the first, and Connor McDavid and Sean Day followed – and he went on to be OHL rookie of the year. He played a top-four role as a 17-year-old at world juniors. He became the third player to be named the OHL’s outstanding defenseman the season he turned 18, following Bryan Berard and Ryan Ellis.

After the Panthers took him first overall, it didn’t take them long to trust him, even though defense is supposed to be such a difficult position for a young player.

“We trusted him from Day 1,” said coach Gerard Gallant. “That’s the thing. He didn’t give us any reason not to trust him. From the first game he played right up until today, he’s been steady, steady. He doesn’t look like an 18-year-old kid. Nobody in our locker room, our coaching staff, looks at him like an 18-year-old kid anymore. … We look at him as a veteran player who plays in all situations, kills penalties, plays power play. He can do it all.”

First, the Panthers paired him with Mitchell. Then they paired him with Brian Campbell, a 35-year-old puck-mover. Campbell’s a lefty, Ekblad a righty. They think the game the same way. While Mitchell and Dmitry Kulikov generally take the toughest defensive assignments, Campbell and Ekblad can play a style that suits their skill sets.

“We like a little bit of riskiness to the game, but it’s more of a calculated risk,” Ekblad said. “We both play very loose. We’re decent defensively. We complement each other because we’re kind of unpredictable. I can’t predict him, but I know that he’s going to be doing something similar to this and I work around it. We both kind of have that mentality. We’re both very offensive.”

The Panthers rave about what Ekblad does with the puck at the blue line – at even strength and on the power play. He doesn’t panic. He doesn’t give away the puck. He puts it in the right spot or gets it on net. At 6-foot-4 with a long, 87-flex stick, he likes to hold the puck out to one side of a defender. When the defender comes out, he’ll pull it back to the other side and let it go.

“It just comes off so hot and quick,” Mitchell said. “He just whips it. He always finds a way to get a shooting angle and get it the right height to the net. I wish I could do that. I try every day, but I can’t.”

But ask what is most impressive about Ekblad on the ice at his age, and Gallant points to the defensive zone. He’s unusually aware and strong for an 18-year-old.

“Lots of kids come up, and they’re offensively skilled on the power play, and they get some points because of that,” Gallant said. “But the way the kid plays defensively, it’s surprising, really.”

* * * * *

Look, Aaron Ekblad is still a teenager. He likes having fun. He leaves stuff lying around the house. He has room to improve on the ice. He needs mentorship. But according to Mitchell, he’s comfortable with himself and not caught up in all the trappings of pro life, and he’s not satisfied just to play in the NHL.

Ekblad isn't satisfied to be in the NHL, he wants to be a difference-maker against the game's best players. (USA Today)
Ekblad isn't satisfied to be in the NHL, he wants to be a difference-maker against the game's best players. (USA Today)

One day, Ekblad came home and fumed about a mistake.

“We lost that game,” he told Mitchell. “It was my fault.”

“No, it’s not your fault,” Mitchell reassured him. “It was one play in the game.”

Mitchell smiled as he told the story.

“That’s the pressure he kind of puts on himself, because he believes he can make a difference in every game, even at 18,” Mitchell said. “That’s a pretty good spot to be in when you’re 18, thinking you can make difference against the best players in the world.”

Ekblad isn’t overconfident, though. He has uncommon perspective for his age. When he went through a recent five-game point streak – three goals, seven points – he didn’t start thinking he was Paul Coffey.

One day, Ekblad came home and mentioned he didn’t really deserve an assist.

“I didn’t even do anything,” he told Mitchell. “It went off my skate, and it went to the guy.”

Mitchell smiled again.

“He’s mature enough to see that,” Mitchell said. “He knows that it’s been a good stretch and it won’t last forever. Hopefully it does. But the season has ebbs and flows, and so he knows that, ‘OK, enjoy it while it’s going on right now,’ because there’s going to be a stretch, it happens to every young player, where it doesn’t go as well. I think he’s mature enough to know that it’s going on.”

The temptation with rookies like Ekblad is to compare them to great players. Ekblad looked up to Lidstrom. He wears No. 5. He picked a puck out of the mid-air at the blue line with his stick blade the other night, just like Lidstrom used to do … But that’s premature and unfair.

“I was so fortunate to play with some great players,” said Mitchell, who played with a young Drew Doughty with the Los Angeles Kings. “He actually just plays his own game, to be honest with you. He has his own identity.”

Let him grow. Enjoy the ride.

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