Understatement time: Aaron Ekblad is a pretty good defenseman. And while his natural talents have been a boon for the Florida Panthers cornerstone, Ekblad has also made sure to learn from his elders at every step of his NHL career.
As a rookie, he lived at Willie Mitchell’s house, where the Stanley Cup-winner showed the soon-to-be Calder Trophy recipient how to live the professional life. Ekblad later had the chance to pair up on the ice with another Cup winner in Brian Campbell, and now he’s skating with veteran Keith Yandle, tasked with shutting down the opposition’s top line by new coach Bob Boughner (look for an article on the Boughner-Ekblad family connections in the next issue of the magazine).
“I love it,” Ekblad said. “I take pride in playing against top lines; it feels good to have that confidence bestowed on you.”
The Panthers tried some different combinations in the pre-season before settling on Ekblad–Yandle, a pairing the coach believes in.
“They have the ability to move pucks,” Boughner said. “And they’re both big guys with good sticks.”
One of Boughner’s missions this season is to get Ekblad playing faster in transition and he wants clean exits out of the defensive zone from all his blueliners. Yandle has more than 800 NHL games under his belt already, combining regular season and playoffs. No other Florida blueliner has even hit 300 games of service yet.
Ekblad, who bought the house four doors down from Yandle in Florida, would like to grow into that kind of veteran, one who can settle a young team down in times of need.
“He’s got that experience when things break down,” Ekblad said. “He’s the voice of reason.”
So far this season, the pairing has worked out well. Ekblad and Yandle are putting up decent possession numbers, despite the top competition they’re facing, while Ekblad leads the blueline corps in offense with five points through eight games.
On top of learning from Yandle and Boughner, Ekblad has made a habit of tabbing any of the hockey minds at his disposal in Florida. When he returned from a head/neck injury sustained at the World Cup of Hockey last year, the big blueliner found himself playing small.
“It was a tough start to the season,” Ekblad said. “I was timid, afraid to go in the corners. I was playing too safe.”
Sometime in late December or early January, he had a sit-down with Dale Tallon, the Panthers’current GM and then-president of hockey operations. Tallon himself was a talented NHL defenseman back in the day, who came into the league with nearly as much expectation as Ekblad did. After that conversation, Ekblad felt things turned around – until a sinister elbow to the head from Tampa Bay’s Gabriel Dumont torpedoed him in March, costing him 14 of the final 15 games of the season.
Now healthy, Ekblad intends on helping his team to the next level and part of that process involves being a “sponge,” in his words. Tallon is still there, Boughner is a reliable source, and Ekblad recently hung out with Hall of Famer Chris Pronger, who is the team’s new senior advisor to Tallon. If anyone can give advice on being a big, dominant NHL defenseman, it’s Pronger. In the meantime, Ekblad wants to get his young team back on the right track this year.
“The expectation is to win a lot of games and make the playoffs,” he said. “We all want to win the Stanley Cup of course, but first we need to find the confidence to get to the next level. I think we’ll get there, to believe we can win every night.”