Despite suffering their first regulation loss of the season to the Detroit Red Wings, the Florida Panthers have come out of the gate running. The team is off to their hottest start in franchise history and are looking to continue that success in a competitive Central Division. The success of the Panthers all starts with the electric offense, and I think the biggest part of the offensive success is due to the incorporation of the defensemen in the offensive zone. In years past, the Panthers relied on Keith Yandle as their power-play quarterback, however, this season the team has given Aaron Ekblad plenty of offensive leeway as he finally has a reliable partner to cover for him in MacKenzie Weegar.
Aaron Ekblad’s Breakout Campaign
It may be too early to tell, but if the trend continues this season it looks like the former first-overall pick is beginning to take major strides in his young career. After an interesting year with only five goals in 67 games last season, Ekblad has come into this season with clear determination – the 25-year-old has scored three goals in nine games, two of which have come on the power play.
The first pairing defender has shown flashes of his potential in the past, scoring at least 10 goals in his first five seasons in the league. Although Ekblad only scored five goals last season (a career-low) he did show off his playmaking abilities with 36 assists. If he can balance out his offensive output this season, and with increased power-play time like he’s been getting, Ekblad is on an upward trajectory in terms of this production.
In a normal 82-game season, the James Norris Memorial Trophy has generally gone to the defenseman with the best offensive game with a mixture of decent defending. Many argue John Carlson should have won over Roman Josi last season but it was Josi’s elite defending that gave him the edge although he had 10 fewer points than Carlson.
Mark Giordano won the Norris Trophy in the 2018-19 season at 35 years old. Some players, especially defensemen, take longer to reach their peaks in their careers, and it seems like Giordano is playing the best hockey of his career in his mid-to-late thirties. The Calgary Flames captain scored 17 goals and 74 points in his Norris-winning season.
Back in the 2015-16 season, a young Drew Doughty won the trophy at only 26 years old with 51 points in 82 games. His 52 points ranked 10th in the league (among defensemen) that year, clearly showing the trophy can be won by a combination of offense and elite defensive abilities as well.
Working Toward the Trophy
Ekblad sure has plenty to prove to be listed as the best defenseman in the NHL in a given year. If the Panthers continue their early success and he continues to contribute on the power play, as well as shutting down teams’ top lines, Ekblad can sure look to grab his first Norris Trophy. As someone who watches his game almost every night, he certainly is playing like he has the confidence of some of the elite defenders in the game like Giordano and Doughty.
The partnership of Ekblad and Weegar is certainly the best thing the team has put together in a long time – when those two are on the ice, fans can notice a different pace to the Panthers’ game. The players are executing cleaner breakouts, the forwards get deeper in the play as they know they can rely on their top pair to settle things down on the back end, and both defensemen join the rush to create even more dangerous chances both on the power play and even-strength.
It’s also interesting to note that the Panthers have never had a player win the Norris Trophy. If anyone is going to get the first for the team it would be Ekblad, and all signs point to him having a great next few years with the team. If the team can continue this success through the rest of Ekblad’s time with the Panthers, he could definitely reach that 60-70 point mark as he continues to improve and the team looks to finally win their first playoff series in 25 years.
Ryerson School of Journalism,
Florida Panthers coverage