The 2021-22 season is off to a particularly good start for the Florida Panthers. The team has 19 of a possible 20 points and is yet to lose in regulation. Despite rightfully losing head coach Joel Quenneville in the wake of the Chicago Blackhawks sexual assault scandal, the team has continued to win hockey games. One of the main reasons for the Panthers’ success is their now Norris Trophy-contending defenseman Aaron Ekblad.
A Top 5 NHL Defenseman
Ekblad has always been able to put up points, and more specifically score goals. The shoot-first defenseman has eclipsed the 10-goal mark in six of his seven NHL seasons despite one of those seasons seeing him play only 35 games. In fact, before a gruesome leg injury that ended his 2020-21 campaign, Ekblad was on pace for a 25-goal, 50-point pace over a regular 82-game season. It is worth noting that last season’s schedule featured only seven different opponents, but that should not take away from his dominance.
This season, Ekblad has picked up where he left off. In his first 10 games, he’s accumulated four goals and six assists for a point-per-game pace. That production sees him tied for fourth in the NHL in points among defensemen. His plus-10 rating is tied for third best in the league with teammate and defensive partner MacKenzie Weegar. He has yet to take a minor penalty this season and he’s averaged over 25 minutes of ice time per game, which ranks sixth league wide. In short, Ekblad is quickly rounding out into both an offensive asset and a reliable defensive option.
Establishing The Slap Shot
A deeper dive illustrates two reasons why Ekblad has seen an increased workload and more success. First, and most notably, his shooting volume has increased considerably. In both the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, he averaged exactly 2.19 shots per game. Last season, that number ticked up to 2.89 shots per game and, in the first 10 games of this campaign, he’s registered an impressive 3.3 shots per game.
Part of the increased offensive output comes from his role as the lone defenseman and quarterback of the first power-play unit that features the likes of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Sam Bennett, and Sam Reinhart. When looking at the type of shots taken, Ekblad is using his slap shot more than ever, with 18 of his 33 shot attempts coming via that option. His dependence on the slap shot sees him tied for the league lead among NHL defenseman in slap shots taken and in goals scored with the clapper. Ekblad is both finding himself more open due to the Panthers’ impressive 5-on-5 play and is truly utilizing his booming shot on the power play for arguably the first time in his career. The shot opportunities are leading to points and that is leading to serious consideration, albeit early, for some of the league’s highest accolades.
Early Norris Trophy Consideration
Ekblad’s production has him in the early conversation for the Norris Trophy, which is awarded to the NHL’s best defenseman. Among NHL defensemen, he leads them in goals, sits in the top five in points and plus/minus, and in the top 10 in both time on ice per game and shots. His 5-on-5 goals for percentage, essentially the rate at which goals are scored for his team compared to against when he’s on the ice, sits at 68.4 percent. That’s good for ninth best among defensemen that average more than 17 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time per game.
Related: 3 Keys to the Panthers’ Hot Start
Needless to say, if he can keep up this production, he will be in the conversation for the Norris Trophy at season’s end. Futures markets across the league have him featured in the top 10, if not higher, and he’s rostered in an impressive 99 percent of Yahoo! Fantasy hockey leagues.
The Panthers drafted Ekblad first overall in 2014 with this kind of production in mind. Not only did they draft the defenseman, who entered the Ontario Hockey League’s draft on a special exemption at just 15 years of age, they also doubled down on him by signing him to a league-maximum, eight-year deal. That $7.5 million per year deal features a no-movement clause for the next four seasons until he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the 2025 offseason. Needless to say, Ekblad is quickly emerging as the defensive cornerstone the Panthers always hoped he would be.
Making Team Canada
Not only is Ekblad being included in the Norris Trophy conversation early on, but the Windsor, Ontario native is also solidifying his position as one of Team Canada’s likely Olympic defensemen. Depending on the projection, many had him as either the seventh defenseman on the roster or part of the third defensive pairing.
In the Olympic tournament, the full roster (minus taxi squad) dresses for every game, meaning either way Ekblad would see ice time so long as he makes the roster. His power-play expertise could even see him quarterback the second unit behind Cale Makar and/or Dougie Hamilton. Either way, his 5-on-5 play also dictates serious consideration. When his torrid start is considered alongside a serious injury to Drew Doughty and an average start to the season from roster competitor Morgan Rielly, Ekblad looks poised to acquire a spot on the coveted Olympic roster.
A Long Way to Go
Of course, the Panthers and Ekblad are only 10 games in. There is plenty of time for things to go sour or, more optimistically, for him to continue his torrid early season pace. After all, consistency in the greatest hockey league in the world is one of the most difficult things to achieve. That said, the season is already more than a 10th completed for the Panthers. Despite it being early, Ekblad has thrown his name in with the league’s best. Whether that results in a division title, a deep playoff run, a Norris Trophy nomination, an Olympic roster spot, or none of the above, is yet to be seen.
Mitch Davidson originally hails from Oro-Medonte, Ontario just north of Toronto and has been following hockey, the business of the NHL, and the Florida Panthers for the better part of two decades. In his professional career, Mitch is a full time writer as he serves as Executive Director of a public policy think tank, a regular public opinion columnist, and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute, following a 6 year run as a senior staffer in provincial politics.