By Bill Whitehead
It would probably be asking too much for Aaron Ekblad to wax too sentimentally over returning to Philadelphia, site of where he was drafted just six months ago. Ekblad went through all the fanfare then of being the likely No. 1 pick – visiting downtown, hitting Pat’s and Geno’s for cheesesteaks and taking batting practice at Citizens Bank Park.
But it’s unlikely the emotions of coming back to the City of Brotherly Love (it’s actually his second time back, having played in Florida’s 4-1 loss on Nov. 6) will faze the 18-year-old defenseman because, well, we’ve learned that not much affects Ekblad at all.
Not the media and fan attention, not the immediate success, not recently being named the third star for the first week of this month, and not being thrust into the Calder Memorial Trophy race for the season’s top rookie, likely led by Nashville’s 20-year-old Swede Filip Forsberg and his 12 goals, 18 assists and point-a-game pace.
In fact, Ekblad’s fantastic story from heralded, can’t miss prospect to rookie blueliner who’s fitting right in should have added another chapter Tuesday in Florida’s epic, almost neverending 20-round shootout win over the Capitals. After Tom Wilson missed to open the top of the fifteenth round, Ekblad had a chance to win it, and while few have been able to deny the Ontario native this year, Washington goalie Braden Holtby managed the feat. No knock on fellow blueliner Dylan Olsen – one of five Cats shooters who kept victory possible — but if you were betting on which defenseman would be successful late in the shootout, the smart money would’ve been on Ekblad, not Olsen.
All of this credit goes to Florida GM Dale Tallon.
Tallon’s phone rang constantly with the proposal of deals in June when the Panthers’ brass was deciding on whom to take. Yet Tallon said the day before the draft he knew the name of the player he was drafting and felt confident that wouldn’t change over the next 24 hours. Of course, he wasn’t tipping his hand.
On the day of the draft, the rumors kept floating. Vancouver really wanted in, and defenseman Jason Garrison and the Canucks’ first-round pick at No. 6 (eventually Jake Virtanen) were involved. The Maple Leafs popped up in the conversation, too, and Toronto’s pick at No. 8 seemed like a prime spot with Tallon having praised the offensive wizardry of William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers, who were expected to be taken in that range. The Flyers, trying to incite the home crowd, also made pitches, one rumored to include Vincent Lecavalier among others. Heck, maybe even a Schenn or two could have been had in the right deal.
Tallon, though, stuck to his guns and took the BPA – Best Player Available – and went with Ekblad. He did create a little drama by mentioning the Ontario Hockey League – the league of both Ekblad and Sam Bennett – but ultimately no one was shocked by the pick.
Now, 29 games and 18 points into Ekblad’s first season, not a soul in Florida would do anything differently at that draft if there were a do-over. No one would take ex-Cat and current Tampa Bay 30-year-old defenseman Jason Garrison and his 3-point, 13-assist performance in four more starts, plus the pick and other spare parts from Vancouver, over Ekblad. Lecavalier is 34 and played in just 16 games and has fewer goals than Ekblad. Brayden Schenn is on pace for a nice 20-plus goal season, but he and the Flyers’ pick at No. 17 wouldn’t have been worth it, so that would be a no as well. Nylander and Ehlers were chosen by Toronto and Winnipeg at eighth and ninth, respectively, but Ekblad’s contributing to Florida’s playoff push right now while those two are still working on their NHL futures.
Ekblad’s been that good. Just ask his teammates.
“I call his stick a slingshot because (the shot’s) off so quick and pretty hard. He’s a good defenseman to have. He’s always getting pucks through and always making good plays,” Nick Bjugstad said recently after Ekblad’s 3-assist game against Buffalo.
Added Tomas Kopecky: “He’s such a smart player. He kind of reminds me of Nick Lidstrom. He’s so quick on that blue line, and every shot is getting through. For the guys standing in front (of the net), it’s so easy when you know that puck is going to arrive. They all get there.”
When Ekblad was reminded that he was among the league’s leading scoring defensemen, he put that all into perspective, too, saying, “Those guys are great players. I’m sure they’ll surpass me again. I don’t want to get too cocky or anything like that. I’m happy to be producing…our guys are making great plays and giving me that opportunity.”
Tallon praised Ekblad’s character and all-around game over the summer in Philadelphia. And the former Barrie Colts defenseman, as humbly as possible, assessed his game by saying he was solid in every phase of play. He reiterated this in every interview, whether it was the first time we talked to him or third or fourth.
In 2006 after a loss on Monday Night Football, Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green lashed out at the media after his club blew a lead to the Chicago Bears. Green yelled emphatically and repeatedly that the “Bears are what we thought they were.”
Aaron Ekblad definitely is who Dale Tallon thought he was and who we are learning he is.
Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com