By Bill Whitehead
PHILADELPHIA – On a day of hockey prospects playing baseball at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday, nothing about Friday’s NHL Draft was as certain as a 3-0 pitch being called a strike.
Likely top selection Aaron Ekblad displayed some decent hitting skills from the right side of the plate, the opposite side of the dish where Chase Utley and Ryan Howard helped the Philadelphia Phillies win a World Series in 2008, while some of the other prospects showed that they were better suited for leading a rush. All of them participated in a day-long tour of Philadelphia – part of the time downtown, a stop at legendary Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteak joints on Passyunk Avenue a little later, and ending at home plate at CBP, one of the top five ballparks I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.
Ekblad (third from left), the imposing former Barrie Colts defenseman, seemed to be batting cleanup when it came to enjoying the attention.
“This whole week has been pretty exciting. I’ve had a few of my friends like Mark Scheifele go through it. He said it was a pretty cool experience. I’m excited about what’s going to happen this week,” the 6-foot-4, 216-pound Belle River, Ont. native said.
“I’ve never experienced something where you go through a tour of the city. You get to see the baseball stadium and some of the historical landmarks.”
The Panthers, of course, could take Ekblad at No. 1, though the rumors of trading down have been rampant and will intensify over the course of Thursday, when the elite prospects meet with the media at the National Constitution Center. Ekblad simply described himself as a two-way defenseman.
“That’s kind of what I take pride in. I play good, responsible defense. I play on the penalty kill, power play and I produce offensively as well. I had a lot more power-play (goals) than 5-on-5, but I still support the rush,” said Ekblad, who had 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists) in 58 games during his third season with the OHL club. He also had 91 penalty minutes.
As for his talks with the Panthers: “I met them at the combine and had a short talk with them.”
The media I talked with agreed in unison that selecting Ekblad is the right choice. At worst, he becomes a decent second-pairing defenseman with a strong shot who can inject life into Florida’s abysmal power play. At best? Well, if he and Erik Gudbranson can develop into the kind of bruising blueliners that are needed in this era of defensive strength in the rush to the Stanley Cup, the Panthers could be in much better shape over the next few years.
Whoever picks Ekblad, whether it be Florida, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver or any of the other teams who’ve apparently inquired, will be getting a great commodity – an extraordinarily physically gifted, tough as nails player who is equally articulate and accommodating. Tallon has pointed out that a defenseman’s development usually takes 300 games, so the organization would have to be patient with Ekblad, especially if he breaks camp with the Cats.
I’m just not sure the Panthers will be there at No. 1 to select him tomorrow night.
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