By Bill Whitehead
After finally making it home from Philadelphia and slogging through a wet NASCAR weekend working at Daytona, I offer up these little leftovers from the City of Brotherly Love. Hopefully, this will get you in the right mood for Florida’s development camp that opens today.
You’re going to love Aaron Ekblad, Florida’s top pick. And I mean absolutely love. It’s that simple really. I’ve had the chance to talk to him a few times and watch how interacts with the media and fans, and the kid’s a natural. Smooth and articulate, Ekblad’s exactly what this franchise needs: A new face that it can build around, a poster boy for the organization. I chatted with him at Citizens Bank Park, the prospects interview and the draft, and the 18-year-old is extremely likable and will quickly be a media and fan favorite.
But forget about my encounters with him. Everyone I spoke with just swooned over the kid and said the choice at No. 1 by Florida GM Dale Tallon was an easy one. At the ballpark before batting practice while waiting for credentials, one hockey radio host told me Ekblad would be a great player for Florida for 15 years and had no flaws – solid on both ends of the rink and dependable. Don’t even think about trading the pick, he stated. The dropoff from Ekblad to everyone else was too steep.
At the draft I sat beside someone who worked with a junior team that was an Ontario Hockey League rival to Ekblad’s Barrie Colts and had watched him play “a hundred times.” He had nothing but positives to say about Ekblad, particularly when it came to his strong character and physical nature. He added that Ekblad (@EK5Colts) has no cockiness or ego about him, just goes about his business. The same OHL source didn’t have such adoration for Brendan Lemieux, Ekblad’s teammate who was selected No. 31 overall by Buffalo, but that’s for the Sabres to deal with.
I guess the most gloating or ego Ekblad showed at the draft was saying he expected to make the team out of camp and contribute right away, but that’s neither gloating nor ego; it’s confidence that comes with being a premier athlete. And you have to expect that self-assuredness by a No. 1 overall pick.
Just a hunch, but I feel that a year from now Florida fans will all be saying, “Hey, remember when we wanted to trade away No. 1 for a package with Edmonton or Vancouver? Man, glad Dale didn’t do that.”
It was a strong, sure move by the Panthers in choosing what amounted to be the consensus best player in the draft.
Two teams who did really well at the draft — Edmonton and Winnipeg. Skating may be a slight issue with Oilers’ No. 3 pick Leon Draisaitl, but he rates high up there on the maturity and skill level. I spent time with him at the ballpark and prospects interviews, and he couldn’t have been a more pleasant person, taking the moment in stride and speaking with me like he was a close friend. He was an immediate favorite of everyone. Jets’ top pick Nikolaj Ehlers, meanwhile, was a mock draft favorite among message board types. Many fans played the role of Tallon and tried to work a deal that would bring the Panthers the electrifying Ehlers, a roster player or two, and a prospect. It didn’t work out for Florida on either of these kids, but I’ll be watching their development closely and hoping they do well because you can’t help but like them.
Here are a couple of shots I took of Draisaitl (left) and Ehlers (right):
PHInally, Philadelphia fans. What else can you say other than that they never fail to deliver when it comes to derisive behavior? They booed everything from start to finish, regardless of conference affiliation or geographical proximity. The only team that escaped unscathed on Friday was San Jose, but that was because the NHL neglected to acknowledge them during the roll call.
The last chorus of jeers from the night came when a league official shut down the festivities by proclaiming that the first round had ended. The boos rang out loudly at the announcement, which had the feel of “Hey, folks, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” That’s from The Blues Brothers, and blue, especially that of the New York Rangers, doesn’t play well in Philly.
Final point: If you ever get the chance to go to the NHL Draft, you definitely should. It’s a fantastic event and you never know who you’ll run into. The non-Panther highlights were Mike Babcock taking selfies and Joel Quenneville poking in to the Florida media scrum by mistake.
And hey, the Panthers are hosting next year, so you have no reason not to go.
Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com