Without Brian Campbell as his safety blanket, Panthers star defenseman Aaron Ekblad is struggling offensively and in his own end.
No team had a more eventful offseason than the Florida Panthers. After winning their division, most teams would stand pat, but Florida knew that much of its success was a mirage. There was still lots of work to do. The Panthers shored up their defense, got rid of possession anchors, and locked up their core. Instead of doubling down on a paper tiger, they improved at the margins, making the team stronger and deeper.
So far the results have been mixed. The team sits sixth in the Atlantic with an 8-8-1 record, but they’ve also dealt with a glut of injuries to key players like Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad. Their record should improve when those two come back, especially considering they’ve done a very good job controlling play despite their absence. The team sits sixth in score-and-venue adjusted Corsi at 52.5 percent, according to Corsica. They may not look the part yet, but the Panthers have potential to be a very dangerous team.
There’s one big roadblock standing in the way of that though — and it’s their number one defenseman, Aaron Ekblad, who simply hasn’t been very good this season.
In 17 games this season, Ekblad has a single point at 5-on-5 (that he got Thursday), and four points total. He’s last among all Panthers defensemen in Corsi at 48.4 percent after adjusting for score, zone, and venue. The Panthers shot rates are 5.9 percent worse with Ekblad on the ice compared to on the bench. In his first two seasons, that number was around plus-two percent instead.
Looking at Ekblad’s Game Score, which combines individual production and on-ice rates into one measure of value, shows that the start of his 2016-17 campaign has been among the worst stretches he’s had in his short career.
Think of the numbers above on the same scale as points-per-game. (Game Score factors in more than just points, but it’s based on the same scale to make it easier to interpret). No. 1 D-men sit above 0.59, or the equivalent of a 48 point player, while a first pairing D-man is at 0.45, or 37 points. Ekblad has gone from 0.66 in his first year, to 0.54 in his second year, to 0.31 this season. Basically, he’s gone from the equivalent of a 54 point player to a 25 point player, according to Game Score.
Generally speaking, Ekblad has been a No. 1 D-man from the get-go and has at least been a top pairing player for most of his career, aside from a cold spell late last season. This year, he’s hovering just above second pairing quality, which is very close to his worst-ever stretch. This season, 29 percent of his games would have been in the bottom 20 percentile of all games last season (Game Score under -0.15). That number was 23 percent last season, and seven percent in his rookie year.
So what gives? The answer may lie with his partners. Ekblad was great in his first season, a year where he spent nearly 90 percent of his time with Brian Campbell. Last season, he started the year with Campbell, where he again showed his ability to be a No. 1 D-man, but around mid-December, Ekblad started playing with Dmitry Kulikov instead, according to his game-by-game history at hockeyviz.com. That’s when his numbers began to tumble drastically. That big rise in the previous chart you see in mid-March last year? Back to playing with Campbell.
Ekblad played 490 minutes at 5-on-5 with Campbell last year, and the Panthers controlled 57.9 percent of the shots with them together. With Kulikov, that number was 47.5 percent in 569 minutes. It’s a stark contrast, but it’s also an unfair comparison as Campbell is a much more competent D-man than Kulikov. It’s not really a surprise Ekblad’s numbers went down going from one partner to the other considering the quality of each.
The real test comes this season where Ekblad has played primarily with big UFA signing Keith Yandle, who has historically been a consistent play-driver. The two haven’t meshed well together at all, grabbing just 47.4 percent of the shot share. Yandle is doing fine with Jason Demers, but him and Ekblad just haven’t clicked. The chemistry Ekblad had with Campbell was undeniable, and he’s had a tough time finding it with anyone else.
That’s not usually an issue for most number one defensemen because they’re the ones carrying the pair, making anyone that plays with them better. Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, Kris Letang, Mark Giordano — all these guys elevate their partner’s game, no matter who they play with. They control the puck. The same can’t be currently said about Ekblad.
Ekblad being a byproduct of Campbell was a concern among some people in the analytics community to start his career, but I’m sure not many expected his current predicament. He’s still very young, and it’s still early in the season, but the warning signs are there and they’re troubling. The lack of point production will come back eventually as it’s likely due to bad breaks more than anything, but his territorial play needs to be better. It’s a big deal and Ekblad hasn’t been very good at it without Campbell.
The Panthers didn’t invest $60 million over eight years for him to be a passenger. That’s top 10 defenseman money and while he’s got the potential to be just that, he hasn’t showed it yet on his own. Maybe the early season struggles are just a blip, and he will develop into one of the best blueliners in the league as many expected when he was picked first overall. He’s still just 20 years old, so there’s plenty of time for improvement, but it’s an alarming sign worth keeping an eye on as the year progresses.
The Panthers have a very good team, and they’ll have one for years to come, but that all hinges on their franchise cornerstones becoming and being as good as advertised. So far, Ekblad hasn’t.