The Florida Panthers addressed their most glaring weakness with the No. 1 pick in Friday night’s 2014 NHL draft in Philadelphia.
They selected Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad to join a blue line that lacks a young defenseman capable of developing into a franchise cornerstone. The 18-year-old from Belle River, Ontario is the first blueliner selected with the top pick since Erik Johnson went to the St. Louis Blues in 2006.
Here’s my analysis of Ekblad from Thursday’s ranking of the top defensemen in the 2014 draft class:
“The 18-year-old has tremendous size, uses his strength to his advantage and plays a physical game in all three zones. He blocks shots, plays against opposing teams’ top players and kills penalties. Ekblad also is well-positioned in his own zone, is able to skate his way out of trouble and makes a good first pass out of the defensive zone to start the break out.”
“From an offensive standpoint, his powerful shot from the point is a huge weapon on the power play, and his playmaking skills (specifically his passing) really improved over the last two years. His decision-making also is impressive, and he rarely makes mistakes.”
“In regard to a pro player comparison, Ekblad’s ceiling is Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber, but he also reminds me of Chicago Blackahawks veteran Brent Seabrook.”
In addition to his impressive on-ice skill set, Ekblad also displayed great leadership at the junior level as Barrie’s captain last season. He approaches the game like a 10-year veteran and possesses the work ethic required to become a great player.
One of the reasons why Ekblad was the top-ranked prospect in this draft class is because he’s ready to play at the NHL level next season. This made him a perfect fit for a Panthers team that wants to win and make the playoffs right away (evidenced by the Roberto Luongo trade in March).
No. 1 pick D Aaron Ekblad of the Panthers: "I feel like I can step in next year and make a difference."—
Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) June 27, 2014
The Panthers have a deep and talented prospect pool that includes several players with high-end talent, including young forwards Jonathan Huberdeau (No. 3 overall, 2011 draft) and Aleksander Barkov (No. 2 overall, 2013 draft). They passed on defenseman Seth Jones with the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, and Erik Gudbranson (3rd overall in 2010 draft) hasn’t developed into a top-pairing D-man, which had led to a number of defensive issues over the last few years.
Florida ranked 29th in goals scored, 29th in goals against, 30th in power-play success and 30th in penalty killing last season. This is why one of the team’s goals in the offseason was to acquire a acquire a defenseman with an all-around skill set capable of excelling on special teams — Ekblad fits this description.
The future is bright for Florida, but it must develop these prospects patiently. Ekblad is lucky to join a blue line that includes a high-character guy like Ed Jovanovski and former Stanley Cup champion Brian Campbell. These veterans will help Ekblad adjust to the speed, physicality and mental grind of the pro game.