Hockey / Sports

Panthers' top pick Aaron Ekblad, 18, eager to earn roster spot

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- The Panthers passed on a projected NHL-ready defenseman in last year's draft when they selected center Aleksander Barkov over Seth Jones at No. 2, so they weren't about to let another one slip away.

While Barkov had an excellent, but injury-shortened rookie season, the Panthers selected 18-year-old Aaron Ekblad, 6-foot-4, 213-pound captain of the Barrie Colts (OHL), last month with their No. 1 pick. And if first impressions are a true indicator of what the immediate future holds, then no one was disappointed at the recently concluded Panthers' development camp.

"I'm really impressed with his hands," beamed Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon during his camp summation session. "I knew he was a well-rounded player, but I'm really happy with his skills ... how he handles the biscuit, how he moves it and how he shoots it.

"He's really got tremendous skills for a kid that size and that young."

It certainly doesn't hurt that Ekblad's agent and mentor is legendary Hall of Fame defenseman Bobby Orr, who as an 18-year-old rookie for the Boston Bruins had 41 points and a 0-rating to earn the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year honors in 1967.

"He's called me, he's texted me 100 times about this right from when I was 14 years old," said Ekblad, who had 23 goals and 30 assists in 58 games last year for Barrie. "He's given me a lot of good advice" Be passionate about the game, and things will fall into place."

While Tallon and player of development honchos Brian Skrudland and Bryan McCabe gushed over Ekblad, the broad-shouldered teenager knows that being the No. 1 pick on a 29th-place team still doesn't guarantee him a roster spot this season.

"Obviously, I don't expect a spot on this team. I have to earn it," said Ekblad, who will participate in Canada World Juniors training camp in August. "This is just the first steppingstone to that goal. I don't think until my first game I'll feel that I'm finally here."

McCabe, who was 20 when he started his sterling 17-year NHL career was duly impressed.

"He can move; he has a heavy shot from what I saw; he's composed and mature for his age," McCabe said. "He's very confident, not cocky, but he believes in himself which is a great attribute for a young kid.

"We certainly don't want to rush any kids, but if he comes into camp and proves he can play we're certainly not going to set him back."

Ekblad elicited gasps from the crowd in the Panthers IceDen when he blasted in a goal during the intrasquad scrimmage.

"Obviously, I still have a lot of hard work to go through to make this team in September," Ekblad said. "1/8I learned3/8 just how much it takes. We had a good talk with 1/8McCabe3/8.

"It's just amazing how much mental toughness and how physically and mentally prepared you have to be to make it to the next level. It's a big jump and I'm really excited and aware of what I have to do."

Jones, 19, eventually taken by the Predators at No. 4, had a so-so rookie season with six goals and 19 assists in 77 games to go with a minus-23.

"What we expected is what we got," Skrudland said of Ekblad. "Very mature, young individual that's focused. He is on the right track. He's not only a great hockey individual, but he's a good person off the ice.

"He seemed to take a leadership role with this group right off the hop and ran away with it, and was vocal, was respectful, was everything it takes to be a Panther."

Ekblad, who had drawn comparisons to offensive-minded defensemen such as Shea Weber, Alex Pietrangelo and Duncan Keith, wears No. 5 for his hero, future Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom. He knows there are no shortcuts.

"I need to work on everything," Ekblad said. "Skating is one of the things I focus on the most, considering it's a fast-paced game in the NHL. ... Any time you can get a little bit stronger, it's really important.

"The full realm of my game needs to get better before I can play in the NHL."

Tallon, who expects to sign Ekblad before training camp to a contract that will most likely be in the three-year, $11 million range, is banking on him being in the opening lineup on Oct. 9 against the Lightning.

"This kid is totally committed," Tallon said. "He'll go back and do whatever it takes to come back here and earn a spot on our team."

(c)2014 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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