Aaron Ekblad’s maiden NHL voyage is equally predictable and shocking.
On one hand, everything the mammoth defenseman has accomplished with Florida matches what the world expected of him. Prospects didn’t come more can’t-miss than Ekblad, who at 15 was the first defenseman to earn exceptional status and join the OHL a year early, a la the John Tavares rule. Ekblad logged Clydesdale minutes with the Barrie Colts. He spearheaded a serious stab at the Memorial Cup in 2013. He manned Canada’s blueline at the 2014 world juniors with middle-aged poise. Months after the Panthers made him the first D-man in eight years to go first overall in the NHL draft, he entered the world’s best circuit already 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds.
Ekblad wasn’t old enough to legally drink, and he was barely eligible to attend an R-rated movie without mommy and daddy, but he was as ready as he could possibly be, built like a tank and noticeably polished in interviews. It seemed like the kid would make it look easy, and he largely has. His 24 points after 40 games placed him third among rookies and miles ahead of the pack for the lead among freshman blueliners. Only Damon Severson averaged more minutes among rookies. It was precisely the smooth transition Ekblad was supposed to make.
“I didn’t feel intimidated at all, actually,” he said. “I had guys like Willie Mitchell, and obviously this is a young team, so guys like (Aleksander) Barkov and (Nick) Bjugstad were able to welcome me with open arms. So that counts as fairly easy in my mind.”
Fairly easy? It makes you want to grab Ekblad’s enormous shoulders and shake him. Don’t you realize what you’ve done?
We’re not witnessing run-of-the-mill rookie excellence. Context is everything and the deck should’ve been stacked against Ekblad as (a) a defenseman and (b) an 18-year-old defenseman. How hard is it for players of this ilk to produce immediately in the NHL? Per quanthockey.com, only five D-men in history have started an NHL season at 18 and produced more than 25 points. Each did it in 61 or more games. In 40 contests, Ekblad already had the eighth-best total all-time for an 18-year-old D-man. His 49-point pace put him on track to pass Robert Gordon ‘Bobby’ Orr for second all-time, trailing only Phil Housley’s virtuoso 66-point showing. (Doug Bodger, Petr Svoboda and Jim Benning are the other three 18-year-old rookie blueliners to exceed 25 points.)
Why is Ekblad in such rare company? The thinking has always been that forwards have an easier time transitioning to the NHL and that it’s an extremely tough racket for a teenage blueliner to navigate the position. A direct jump for an elite defense prospect takes longer on average. We crunched the numbers of skaters selected in the first round of the past 20 drafts. We excluded players who were 20 or older when chosen, and we disqualified draft classes that had a lockout immediately afterward, so the “past 20” drafts excluded 1994, 2004 and 2012 and included 1992 and 1993. In that time 18.6 percent of skaters went on to start their next season with their NHL clubs. Forwards made the jump 21.2 percent of the time. Defensemen? Just 13.1 percent.
An obvious reason D-men transition slower is they fight for one of six starting roster spots, not 12. But many who’ve done it believe it’s more than that.
“You’re the last line of defense, and when you make a mistake it’s a lot more likely to end up in your net, rather than being a forward when you still have the defense backing you up,” said Flyers defenseman Luke Schenn, who went right to the NHL at 18 in 2008-09 after Toronto drafted him fifth overall. “You’re relied on for many different things. Battling big, strong veteran forwards in corners and in front of the net, moving the puck efficiently and being matched up against good forwards every team you play, every night.
“Maybe I’m a little biased toward it, but I definitely see, with young defensemen, it takes a while to find their way in the NHL versus a forward. Not to say forward’s easy by any means, but, obviously, playing ‘D’ you just have that much more responsibility.”
Housley offers especially unique perspective on life as an 18-year-old NHL defenseman. Not only did he pull it off with historic success as a Buffalo Sabre in 1982-83, but he also witnessed the feat again last season as an assistant coach in Nashville. Housley watched Seth Jones, 2013’s No. 4 overall pick, stick with the Predators. Housley had already coached Jones with the U.S. gold medallist WJC team in 2013, and Housley continues to mine from his experiences more than 30 years ago to teach Jones today.
For Housley, there’s nothing tougher for a teenage blueliner than learning what kinds of forwards they’ll face every game. The most dynamic attackers, from Alex Ovechkin to Rick Nash, have outstanding peripheral vision, allowing them to make unexpected plays, Housley says, so young D-men must learn to never let their guard down. They have to maintain their body position and not get beat to the net.
“They say you don’t really come into your own as a defenseman until you’re about 24 or 25,” Housley said. “You’ve played three or four seasons when you really get an understanding of the players you’re up against, their systems, what they do on their forecheck, how to break out versus pressure, using your feet.”
Defensemen have more to process on any given shift than forwards. And perhaps that’s why the position can be so mentally taxing for a teenager. Jones said he felt great about his start in 2013-14, in which he logged 24-plus minutes a game and played alongside superstar Shea Weber while Roman Josi was injured. But the weight of everything Jones had to learn and the grind of adjusting to competing against grown men caught up with him. Housley even admits he and the Preds played Jones too much too early and paid for it.
“I was playing off adrenaline, the first 25 to 30 games, just excited to be there, and it kind of took a dive on me,” Jones said.
Jones is overly hard on himself, being the competitor he is. He still played 77 games and tallied 25 points as a 19-year-old. But his point is valid and one the Panthers and Ekblad should consider in the coming months. There’s a lot to take in, and it can catch up to a young defenseman as his rookie season reaches its dog days.
Good teams look to exploit that vulnerability, too. Schenn says some veterans believed they had a physical advantage over him and tried to impose their will. Ekblad says he knows during road games opponents will deploy their best players against him and partner Brian ‘Soupy’ Campbell, looking to test an 18-year-old kid’s mettle and create a mismatch. As a result, Ekblad has faced a who’s who of elite players. He says the Sedins wowed him, that Ovechkin’s speed, skill and shot “are ridiculous,” that Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby are obviously great, and that Jaromir Jagr is, well, a devil of a defensive assignment because of “that butt he sticks out, and he holds onto the puck like no other.”
With so much responsibility and so many opponents preying on defensemen, cautionary tales emerge of coveted blueliner prospects psychologically damaged after being rushed to the NHL. New Jersey’s Adam Larsson, picked fourth overall in 2011, lost his confidence after an inconsistent rookie campaign and watched most of the Devils’ run to the Cup final from the press box. Only now, three years later at 22, is he back looking like an everyday NHLer. General manager Lou Lamoriello feels Larsson deserved to make the team at 18, as he’d played against men in Sweden and had a mature build, but Lamoriello acknowledges there were risks.
“When things are going good (in the NHL), you don’t have a chance to fail and then recover without everybody seeing it or it costing you a game,” Lamoriello said. “Whereas in the minors, when you go through the growing process, you can learn, because everybody knows it’s a development team, and you’re going through these mistakes, and you have to live with them.”
Blunders in the high-stakes NHL get rookie D-men benched. Depending on their mental makeup, some may start questioning themselves as they wait to play again, Lamoriello said. That’s why he much prefers to let his D-men develop a year or two in the AHL.
“Confidence plays a major role,” he said. “It’s an overused word and maybe under-respected at times. We think that at 18 and 19, they’re 30 years old. They’re not.”
The Leafs took heat for deploying Schenn in such a hockey mad-market, too. He held his own quite well at 18 but struggled at times in subsequent seasons and wound up dealt to Philadelphia by 2012. He insists he has no regrets about making the immediate jump but ponders what would’ve happened had he stayed in WHL Kelowna one more year on a star-studded team that had Memorial Cup aspirations. Jones doesn’t like to look back, either. The way he sees it, if he was meant to return to his junior team in WHL Portland, it would’ve happened.
The key to avoiding post-traumatic stress disorder for a teenage rookie defenseman, Housley says, is not just putting in the work to avoid the mistakes, which he says is best done by watching as much video as possible, studying “the book” on opposing forwards and learning how to eat and rest properly. It’s mainly about expecting and not fearing the mistakes that do happen.
“You’re not going to have only good games,” he said. “It’s just hard to do at a young age on an 82-game schedule. What you have to do is, whatever you have that day, if you have 85 percent, bring your best 85 percent.”
Schenn says he’d continue to tell himself he belonged in the NHL after giving up a goal or having a passive shift. Part of surviving in the wild is not showing fear, right? And the quintessential example came eight games into Schenn’s career. Ottawa Senators enforcer Chris Neil caught Matt Stajan with a knee, and Schenn decided to retaliate.
“Obviously, Chris Neil, me as an 18-year-old, he’s not a guy you’re going to go up to all the time and ask to fight, but I just felt like that was a way of sticking up for a teammate and showing, physically, that you can compete with some of the bigger, stronger guys out there.”
And in a lot of ways, that moment signified a paradigm shift. Of Schenn’s draft class, five of the 12 defensemen taken in Round 1 played their next games in the NHL, including him, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo and Zach Bogosian. It was by far the most successful D-man draft class of the past 20, with a 41.7 percent success rate in the first round. In the five qualified classes we studied since then, 18.2 percent of D-men made the jump, versus 20.2 percent of forwards. Is the game changing? Is the gap closing?
Ekblad sure makes it seem that way. It helps being blessed with the physicality of a 25-year-old, but while he owes much of that to his frame, he worked for some of it. He knew he’d have men thrown at him instead of boys.
“The best piece of advice I ever got was to be ready for that, and I spent the summer training,” he said. “And there haven’t been too many huge surprises. It’s just more or less adaptation, and the transition’s gone smoothly so far.”
The mental rigors of the position and the lack of spots will always limit how many teenage D-men reach the NHL right away, but expect the upward trend to continue. Instead of waiting to fill out, kids now do it manually via vigorous fitness regimens like Ekblad’s. As Schenn puts it, guys work out at 13 and 14 like they used to at 17 and 18. They have better access to information than any past NHL generation. They can watch every game every opponent has ever played. They can fine-tune their bodies with the right foods to have them humming along at peak energy. So maybe Ekblad is justified to be so darned relaxed about the whole thing. If the NHL is a Darwinian landscape, Ekblad had every evolutionary advantage to be naturally selected.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin