As the first-overall pick in the 2014 National Hockey League Draft, there were, and still are, massive expectations heaped upon the shoulders of Aaron Ekblad.
The Florida Panthers defenseman has done nothing but perform, quickly establishing himself as the Panthers’ number one rearguard after stepping into the NHL at 18. He’ll no doubt continue to get better, and will soon transition from a mentee into a mentor.
But is Ekblad, in only his fourth season in the league, already on a trajectory towards the NHL’s truly elite?
Ekblad Awesome on Offense
If the criteria were based on offense alone, Ekblad would unquestionably be in the conversation for best defenseman.
Since entering the league in 2014-15, Ekblad ranks ninth amongst NHL defensemen in goals, with 49 heading into action Sunday. That’s more than Drew Doughty, Victor Hedman, P.K. Subban and a host of other household, top-pairing names. Truly elite company for Ekblad, despite the fact he just turned 22.
Of course, goals aren’t everything, and Ekblad is surprisingly far down the list for assists (tied for 54th) and, thus, his 38th-ranked points total is not particularly impressive.
However, the Panthers don’t score a lot, averaging just 2.65 goals per game since 2014-15, 21st in the NHL. The scoring they have had, especially this season, has been rather top-heavy, with depth being a constant concern for the budget-conscious Floridians.
Thus, it’s not likely we’ve seen Ekblad reach his true playmaking potential; there just hasn’t been enough talent on the Cats to best take advantage of the opportunities he generates.
Ekblad’s Power-Play Usage
Of Ekblad’s 49 goals, 17 have come on the power play, which ranks eighth amongst NHL defensemen since his debut. Another impressive statistic, to be sure, but especially so considering Ekblad ranks 24th in power play time on ice.
Moreover, Ekblad has bagged these tallies despite playing on a team with the 29th-ranked power play percentage during that time span (it’s a lofty 19th this year).
And he often doesn’t even play on the top unit! Even-strength defense partner Keith Yandle has far outstripped him the past two seasons in power play time. Not only do secondary power play units generally receive less ice time than those first over the boards, but most teams have somewhat of a dropoff in talent between the two.
The Panthers are no different, with their dropoff being sharper than most. Take this season, for example: while the first unit is as dangerous as any in the league – consisting of Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck and the aforementioned Yandle, Ekblad has generally been joined on the second unit by some combination of Nick Bjugstad, Denis Malgin, Mike Matheson, Jared McCann, Jamie McGinn and Radim Vrbata. That’s…a bit of a difference.
As good as he is with the extra man, Ekblad does much of his goal-scoring at even strength (seventh amongst defenseman over his career), making him much more than just a power-play specialist.
How Does Ekblad Score His Goals?
Just how does Ekblad manage to score so much? It’s not fair to say he’s especially good at just one thing; he’s excellent at many.
He moves extremely well for any player, let alone a six-foot-four, 216-pound defenseman. Not only is this helpful in puck retrieval and starting the rush, Ekblad combines this mobility with fantastic anticipation, choosing optimal moments to jump up in the play, while rarely being caught up ice.
And when he gets in position? Ekblad has an absolute howitzer, but also a great ability to read the play and select the appropriate shot for the situation. After all, it’s no use taking a full windup for a shot if it gives the opposition the chance to disrupt it.
However Ekblad decides to proceed, you can be sure he’ll hit his target. His accuracy is eerie, especially considering how hard he shoots.
If that’s not the whole package, I’m not sure what is.
Is Ekblad a Defensive Defenseman, Too?
But how is he defensively? Well, that’s sort of a mixed bag.
Certainly, Ekblad is versatile. Along with playing against the opposition’s top players at even strength, he’s on the Panthers’ go-to penalty kill unit (along with Yandle). That said, his effectiveness in these situations is still very much up for debate.
Ekblad’s Advanced Stats
Despite positive possession numbers (averaging nearly 52% Corsi For) over his first three seasons, Ekblad has struggled thus far in 2017-18, posting a poor 48% rating.
Expected Goals has also been a sore spot, at an average of exactly 50% through his first three campaigns (two sub-par campaigns boosted by his Calder Trophy-winning rookie year), which is certainly a little concerning, considering he’s the team’s top defenseman. Even more concerning is the fact that, this season, he’s at an abhorrent 46%. Utterly dreadful.
However, let’s temper these concerns with the fact that, as mentioned, the Panthers are very top-heavy in terms of offensive production. While it’s not an unreasonable expectation that a team’s top defenseman breaks even, at the very least, with regards to the total goals scored for and against his team whilst he’s on the ice, it’s tough to be too hard on Ekblad when the Cats essentially only have one line that can score.
Another mitigating factor is that Ekblad has seen a huge shift in his zone starts this season. During his first three years, in terms of faceoffs in the offensive and defensive zones, Ekblad started in the offensive end nearly 59% of the time, with no huge changes from year to year. But this season? Just 44%.
Thus, it appears Ekblad is being deployed in tougher situations and, therefore, against tougher competition. Whether it was his previous coaches not properly easing him into the situations expected of a number-one defenseman, and or a lack of faith on their part regarding his defensive abilities, the massive changes in how Ekblad has been deployed cannot have been easy for the youngster.
Ekblad has an exceptional toolbox to work with and is presumed to have a good relationship with first-year head coach Bob Boughner (who was himself a longtime NHL defenseman), so Ekblad’s developmental trajectory has every opportunity to break even and soar into the stratosphere.
Ekblad Eye Test
In non-statistical terms, Ekblad is, generally, quite impressive to behold. At his best, he’s as efficient as they come, calmly defending the Florida end with quiet confidence – almost as though the game is too easy for him. And even when he’s not at his best, he’ll still do something once or twice a game that leaves you absolutely awestruck, particularly when it comes to getting out of trouble.
On the downside, he does make some pretty significant blunders from time to time. However, whether it’s giveaways, poor route selection or even a general lack of awareness, there is every reason to expect these trouble spots to become fewer and further between as Ekblad continues to mature. Other exceptional talents who exude the same calm, confidence and control (Carey Price comes to mind) have managed to successfully balance these traits with focus and intensity. I’m sure Ekblad will find a balance, too.
It should also be noted a confounding factor – this season, at least – in assessing Ekblad’s performance has been the transition to a new system of play under Boughner. The whole team has struggled to adapt, though things have been much better of late.
This is Ekblad’s third coach (and system) in four years. Some stability should do wonders.
Ekblad’s Evolution Set to Continue
In short, Aaron Ekblad, in just under four seasons, has established himself as one of the league’s truly elite offensive defensemen. He does much of his damage at even strength, and his assist and point totals will surely increase once the Panthers address their desperate need for depth scoring.
His defensive game continues to develop, with more consistency needed in his own end. Nevertheless, his coach, a former NHL defenseman, trusts him unconditionally, and he is undoubtedly Florida’s best option against opposition offenses.
And the absolute best part about all this? Ekblad just turned 22. He’s also only in the first year of an eight-year contract, so fans in South Florida can look forward to watching him ascend to superstardom on the Panthers’ blue line.
The future looks bright in Sunrise, with Ekblad leading the way. It’s high time the hockey world took notice.
Peter Ferrell covers the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, with a side of jersey and logo (over)analysis, for The Hockey Writers.