PHILADELPHIA – Sitting in a director’s chair surrounded by media, Aaron Ekblad looks more like a Hollywood hunk than a budding pro hockey player.
The six-foot-three, 216-pound Barrie Colts defenceman is unfazed on and off the ice.
How calm was he before a top prospects availability Thursday at the National Constitution Center? He took a nap on a nearby couch.
“In his three years in the OHL, he’s gotten better every year,” said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. “And they (the Colts) were very smart in the way they handled him and developed him. They didn’t say ‘Here, we’ll put the team on your shoulders, let’s go.'”
In his third OHL season, the 18-year-old Ekblad was named the league’s top defenceman after collecting 23 goals, 30 assists and 91 penalty minutes in 58 games. He added seven goals and 10 assists in the playoffs, where he was a plus-11.
Ekblad, granted exceptional status by Hockey Canada to enter the OHL as a 15-year-old, is considered one of the favourites to go first overall in Friday’s NHL draft, with the Florida Panthers mulling over its move while entertaining offers on the first pick.
The 2014 draft pool has received mixed reviews in terms of depth with Ekblad and forwards Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett and Leon Draisaitl seen as the pick of the crop.
But Marr says there is something for everyone in what he calls “a real smorgasbord of players in the first round.”
“There’s a lot of players at various positions. It’s not dominated by defence like some of the past drafts have been,” Marr said.
Ekblad insists he’s in the dark as to what might happen, while admitting going No. 1 would be a dream come true.
“With every GM, they’re holding their cards close to their chest,” said Ekblad. “They’re not showing anyone, they’re not telling anyone what’s going on. Obviously none of us know what’s going to happen (Friday) at the draft. That’s kind of the fun of it.”
With surfer dude looks and a front flip to his hair, Ekblad oozes confidence,
“I’m a very calm person,” he said with a smile. “Media and stuff like that, it’s nothing I’ve ever not been through. It is what it is. It’s the NHL draft. We’ve been preparing for this our whole lives. No one should be nervous here.”
After disappointing seasons, five Canadian teams will be in the spotlight early on in the first round. Barring moves, Edmonton and Calgary will pick third and fourth respectively, after Buffalo follows Florida.
Vancouver has the sixth pick while Toronto is scheduled to select eighth and Winnipeg ninth.
Ottawa’s first pick—10th overall—belongs to Anaheim. Montreal will pick 26th.
Trevor Timmins, Montreal’s director of amateur scouting, says the verdict on this year’s talent will come years down the road when the fruits of the draft are on display in the NHL.
“You never know. There are always surprises,” Timmins said. “We drafted (star defenceman) P.K. Subban in the second round. Now you look back in hindsight today and he should have been a top-10 pick.”
Marr, meanwhile, noted that Ekblad has earned comparisons to Nashville Predators defenceman Shea Weber.
“Weber went 49th overall,” Marr reminded a listener. “He didn’t go at the top.”
Marr believes Ekblad’s offensive game and confidence both blossomed last season.
“He can go out there and take control of the pace of the game,” Marr said. “If it needs to be slowed down a little bit, he’ll slow the play a little bit. If it needs to get going, he’ll lead the rush.”
Canucks GM Jim Benning, a former NHL defenceman, sees Ekblad as a potential franchise blue-liner.
“He’s real smart. He’s strong, physically strong,” said Benning. “He can shoot the puck … He’s got the capability to be a guy who can play minutes and be a point-producer too.”
“Ekblad’s hockey sense to me is off the charts … He’s got man strength already for an 18-year-old,” he added. “So physically he’s ready to make the transition to play in the NHL.”