When Aaron Ekblad was selected first overall in 2014, he was drawing comparisons to the likes of Shea Weber and Denis Potvin, slated to become the Florida Panthers’ franchise defenseman of the future. After winning the Calder Trophy in the 2014-15 season and making back-to-back All-Star Games in 2015 and 2016, it looked like that would be the case. However, Ekblad’s career stalled.
In the 2016-17 season, which just so happened to be the season after the Panthers signed him to an 8-year, $60 million deal, Ekblad’s production plummeted. His point total dropped from 36 to 21 from the year prior and his plus/minus dropped to minus-23 from a plus-18.
Yes, Ekblad did miss 14 games that season, and yes, plus/minus isn’t the perfect representation of a players’ defensive output, but things changed from him after that season. He was no longer in the All-Star conversations regularly, he was no longer heralded as one of the most promising defensemen in the league. Ekblad was now overlooked and thought of as just an average top-four defenseman in the league.
Ekblad was often caught out of position defensively and was struggling to make the right reads on plays, which translated to more goals against. He was often paired with Keith Yandle at the time, and that pairing was a disaster defensively. Neither player was making the right reads on plays, and with his offensive production also taking a hit, it seemed like Ekblad would never reach that star potential he once had.
But this season, Ekblad has changed that narrative.
The Script Has Flipped
Through 26 games of the shortened 2020-21 season, Ekblad is second in the NHL in goals for a defenseman with nine, one behind Jeff Petry. Add in 10 assists and he currently sits with the 12th-most points for any blueliner in the league.
Ekblad is finally showing the promise he had to be the star defenseman that the Panthers were expecting to land with the first-overall pick in the 2014 Draft. He has been a key part of the team’s power play, which ranks eighth in the league in power-play percentage. Five of his nine goals were on the man advantage — the most from any defenseman in the NHL and the 16th-most overall.
Ekblad has always possessed a wicked slap shot, but this season is proving that he has finally honed it enough to become a scary piece to a top power play in the league. His shooting percentage rose from a measly 3.4% in the 2019-20 season to a career-high 12.7%. He is finding the back of the net way more often and finally has the confidence back that he lost after the 2016-17 season.
He has also flipped the script defensively as well. Paired with MacKenzie Weegar, Ekblad has found himself on one of the best pairings in the league, often shutting down some of the league’s best top lines day in and day out. He has gained more and more confidence on the back end, making the plays that the Panthers always needed him to make. He’s finally got his mojo back defensively.
With Weegar being a stay-at-home defenseman as opposed to Yandle’s offensive-minded style, Ekblad’s mistakes are no longer amplified to the point of no return either. The pairing works much better. Ekblad can now focus on being a focal point on the Panthers’ offense without having to worry as much about his partner making a mistake, and that has led to better results on both sides of the ice.
With his newfound confidence, the 25-year-old defenseman is now back on track to becoming the superstar that was promised in the 2014 Draft and Panthers fans will be seeing “Ekblasts” from the point for years to come.
Colby Guy is a writer for the Florida Panthers department here at THW. He’s a senior at Florida Atlantic University and currently serves as a social media manager and photographer for FAU Owls Nest. Previously, Colby has written for FanSided as a New York Islanders, Florida Panthers, and Nashville Predators writer. He also served as Editor-In-Chief for FAU’s University Press.