#FlaPanthers Ekblad Living Up to the Hype

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.

 

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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.

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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

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Just Who Are These New York Islanders?

By Bill Whitehead

Remember the New York Islanders and how they factored into the Florida Panthers’ season a year ago? They were the season-opening opponent, hosting Florida on Long Island in that incredibly outdated, mausoleum of a hockey arena. The Panthers’ win that night was typical for the 2011-2012 season and set the tone for the team’s run to the Southeast Division crown with a 2-0 win behind a power-play goal, reliable defensive play and stellar goaltending.

Jason Garrison scored the power-play goal that night after Stephen Weiss scored Florida’s first goal of the season. In his Florida debut, goaltender Jose Theodore was rock solid and showed a preview of the consistency he would give the club in net during the season by recording 27 saves in authoring the 31st shutout of his career. Oddly, one of those players is already gone, and a very good chance exists that the other two won’t be back as well. Weiss and Theodore are both unrestricted free agents, and their future with the Panthers is uncertain right now.

Instead of remembering the past, though, the Panthers (13-22-6, 32 pts.) will look to the future in Tuesday night’s game (7 p.m., Sun Sports). Fans are still waiting for Nick Bjugstad to score a goal or get on the score sheet. Same for Quinton Howden. In fact, the first goal by either will put him just one behind Drew Shore. Yep, that’s another achievement worth clamoring for — a third goal by Shore. The rookie has seemingly hit the wall, scoring just twice in 36 games. Defenseman T.J. Brennan has two in 12 games, and had two taken away on deflections. Also, it would be nice to see Jonathan Huberdeau (one goal in last 15 games) get a leg up on the Calder competition.

Someone said the other day that he was in a bar in New York, and hockey highlights came on the TV. A fellow patron leaned over and said, “Hey, did you see that Islanders game?” I think the last time anyone said that, even in the City That Never Sleeps, may have been 1983 when The Police (“Every Breath You Take”) and Michael Jackson (“Billie Jean”) were battling it out for top song and most of the guys had steely eyes and were riveted on steel worker Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. That’s not exactly yesterday, folks. In that game last Saturday that the bar patron was referencing, the Islanders lost to the hated rival Rangers, dropping a 1-0 home game in overtime, but the rallying cry could likely be heard echoing throughout those dark, dank spaces of Nassau Coliseum: “Hey, at least we earned a point!”

Sound familiar?

The Islanders (21-16-5, 47 pts.) are clinging to the seventh spot in the playoff standings, just three points ahead of ninth-place Winnipeg, and are a fun team to watch. They have a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate in skillful John Tavares (24-18-42), plus 30-point scorers in wingers Matt Moulson (13-26-39) and Brad Boyes (8-23-31). Casey Cizikas burned Florida last month with the game-winning goal in New York’s 4-3 win at BB&T Center after the Panthers rallied from a 3-0 deficit. Michael Grabner, a player Cat fans are all too familiar with, is a burner on the ice who presents plenty of problems for defensemen on long stretch passes. On the back end, veteran Evgeni Nabokov is 20-11-5 in his 36 starts, logging a 2.50 GAA and a .911 save percentage.

But, really, who are these New York Islanders?

Simple. They’re the feel-good story of the Eastern Conference, an underdog team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007 — a club that is generally overlooked, underestimated and not taken very seriously by hockey fans in the metropolitan New York area. A team who has stunk up the joint for a long while but appears to be headed to the postseason.

They’re last year’s Florida Panthers.

GETTING DRAFTY: In Calgary, the improving Flames dropped a 4-3 game to the Minnesota Wild, who received two goals from newly acquired Jason Pominville. The Flames have 36 points — four more than last-place Florida…In Denver, Columbus tied the game late on a goal by R.J. Umberger, then Nick Foligno scored with 28.7 seconds left in overtime to carry the Blue Jackets past the Avalanche for the win. The single point added by Colorado brings their total to 35, putting them 29th in the NHL…Carolina (36 points) and Tampa Bay (37) both play tonight — the Hurricanes in Ottawa, the Lightning in Winnipeg.