CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – Aaron Ekblad exudes all the qualities that one would want to see from a former first overall pick.
Strong? You better believe it.
He performs at an exceptionally high level, night in and night out, doing it while skating at a position that rarely allows younger players to succeed.
Ekblad, now a ripe 24 years old, is a veteran of this league, with a wealth of knowledge and experience seldom seen in someone his age.
Case in point: Most 24-year-olds haven’t played anywhere to close 450 games in the NHL, a milestone Ekblad surpassed last month.
From his first days as a member of the Florida Panthers, Ekblad has always appeared to be ahead of his time.
His youthful face is almost always hidden behind a full, thick beard, one that he was able to grow well before he first put on a Panthers sweater.
Looks can only get you so far, though. When the then-18-year-old first hit the ice for Florida, it was clear that the team had made the right choice.
"I remember the way he came into the league," recalls Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle, who was playing for the Arizona Coyotes at the time. "He was a guy that looks a lot older than he is, so he always seemed like a veteran player to me, with the way he played and the way he looked. To know that he's only 24, it's one of those things you've got to remember sometimes how young he is, but his potential on the ice is amazing."
HITTING THE GROUND RUNNING
Ekblad’s professional hockey career started off with a bang. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie less than a year after being selected first overall by Florida.
From day one, Ekblad has been a cool customer, never appearing too high or too low. It's a quality rarely seen in someone whose age ends in 'teen', and as Ekblad recalls, even back then, he knew better than to let the game get too big for him.
"I felt pressure coming in, there's no doubt," he said. "I was really, really young. I'm still young, still learning the game on a day to day basis. To put any undue pressure on myself is insane."
Fortunately for Ekblad, he's had a couple of great teammates who have helped him along the way.
After making his first Opening Night roster as a fresh-faced rookie, Ekblad was taken under the wing of Florida’s then-captain, veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell.
Ekblad, needing a place to stay, was invited to live with Mitchell and his wife, Megan, during his rookie season.
That year, Ekblad soaked up as much knowledge and experience as he could from Mitchell, who had just won two Stanley Cups in three years with the Los Angeles Kings.
When Mitchell retired after Ekblad’s sophomore season, it was almost as if fate was working in the young man’s favor.
That summer the Panthers brought in a new veteran defenseman, though the then-30-year-old Yandle was slightly less seasoned than Mitchell, who was a few months past his 39th birthday when he hung up his skates for good.
Still, from the perspective of the underage Ekblad, the two might as well have been one and the same, right down to the proximity of how closely their homes are.
"We live three doors away from each other," Yandle said. "We drive to the rink every day. We talk about hockey, we talk about life. I had great guys mentoring me, and I just try to do the same."
TAKING THE NEXT STEP
Ekblad, already playing in his sixth NHL season, has seen his career turn a corner over the past few years.
He's missed only two games over the past three seasons, both coming earlier this year (one was with an illness, the other for a shoulder injury that was expected to keep him out multiple games).
That kind of resilience has allowed Ekblad to soak up minutes and gain valuable experience, seeing a plethora of situations between even strength and special teams.
"I've always had an appreciation for what he can do," Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said. "He really impressed me with what he did in the game, how he influenced the game, on both sides of the puck. He really could eat up big minutes, and against good players as well, he did a lot of good things. So that's the standard we're looking at, and it's been very impressive."
With his career still ascending, Ekblad has learned the best areas in which to work on his game, whether it's during the season or after.
It's no coincidence that his continuously improving durability has coincided with an increase in offseason workload.
"Over the last two, three years, I've been trying to work a lot harder during the summertime," he said. "Trying to get bigger and stronger, not get pushed around, that's kind of the main focus for me."
Of course, with increased size can come new limitations, but Ekblad has been accounting for that as well. He went on to explain that another big goal of his, in addition to increasing his strength, has been to improve his skating, in all directions.
"It's something I've always had to try and battle," he said. "I'm a bigger guy, so it's hard to keep up with some of those little guys."
His hard work certainly appears to be paying off.
Ekblad has already matched his career high with 39 points so far this season, a number he'll surely shatter over Florida's final 16 games.
The productivity is nice, but take into account that he's playing less time on the power play than ever before, combine that with a clear increase in his defensive accountability and awareness, and it's easy to see why this season is being considered by many as the best of his young career.
"He's a professional," said Yandle. "He's got a good head on his shoulders. You can see him becoming that guy every day.
“He came into the league and it looked easy for him. You know, as a defenseman, it’s never that easy. It’s definitely a humbling position to play. If you look at all the D, you get better and better with age. Even after 30, I think guys get better. You learn the game a little more. For forwards, you can get away with having skill and stuff like that, but as a D, you’ve got to really know how to think the game, and I think he’s doing a good job of that.”
WISE BEYOND HIS YEARS
In the Panthers dressing room at the Ice Den, Ekblad's stall is smack dab in the middle of the far wall, which is where all the defensemen get ready.
To his right, the more seasoned players (Yandle and Mark Pysyk) and his best bud, MacKenzie Weegar. To his left, hop over fellow first round pick Mike Matheson and that's where the younger guys are stationed.
Josh Brown has 92 NHL games under his belt, including 55 this year. The guy next to Brown, Riley Stillman, won't play in his 50th game until at least next season.
Stillman, like Ekblad, was drafted by Florida when he was just 18. He's also currently the youngest guy on the Panthers roster, another thing Ekblad has had more than a little experience at being. It wasn't until Ekblad's third season in Florida that he was able to claim seniority, at least age-wise, over one of his teammates.
Considering the similarities, it came as no surprise that Stillman has gravitated towards Ekblad and is soaking up as much information as he can.
"I've spent a lot of time with him," Stillman said. "He's been really nice. He's been helping me with how to look at certain situations, what to do in different ones. He's been a huge help for me the last two months here."
If this sounds like a familiar story, it is.
First it was Mitchell showing Ekblad the ropes, then Yandle.
Now, the two-time All-Star is paying it forward with the next generation of young Panthers rearguards.
Stillman, who is a few years older than Ekblad was during his rookie season, can appreciate learning from someone who, despite being so young, has already experienced quite a bit in the best hockey league in the world.
"That's exactly it, he's been in the NHL for six years already," Stillman said. "He's a Calder Trophy winner. He's a good guy to look up to and learn from. Obviously, being a first overall pick, and coming in and having the success he's had, and the minutes that he's played, and the situations he's been in, he's seen a lot and been through a lot, and I'm just happy to be a sponge around him."
DON’T CALL IT CONFIDENCE
As the current season has progressed, Ekblad has seen his career turn a corner.
Combining his offensive skills, which have always been there, with a dependable, steady defensive game has taken Ekblad’s game to new heights.
When asked about his confidence level, Ekblad explained that while it's high, he prefers to think about it in different terms.
“I try to leave confidence out of it as much as possible,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m just going out there to do a job. I’m going to try and do it as consistently as possible, night to night, and then confidence isn’t an issue, right? Try to keep it even-keel as much as possible. Try not to let confidence be a factor, on either side of it.”
It's that levelheaded mentality that has enabled Ekblad to continue improving while playing one of the most difficult positions to develop in professional sports.
In a game that's continuously evolving, battling against players that are getting bigger and stronger while somehow moving quicker than before, Ekblad knows that while perfection is something that should be strived for, it's not always going to work out that way.
"I think everybody makes mistakes, but I just try to limit them as much as possible, while also being confident that I can make the play, so there's no question that the play gets done," he said. "I know I might have a little bit of a leash when it comes to making plays and making mistakes."
On the topic of making mistakes, Ekblad acknowledged that his consistent play has allowed him some freedom from the coaching staff.
He said there is an open line of communication between himself and Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville, as well as assistant coach Mike Kitchen, who works mostly with Florida's defensemen.
"They both give me the opportunity to make plays," Ekblad said. "I think they give us all the opportunity to make plays, but it's got to work, right? If you're consistently hurting the team, then you've got to change up something. I feel confident the way I'm consistently making plays on a nightly basis, and I'm just going to try and continue doing that."
Ekblad has come a long way since he was a teenager living in his captain's guest room.
Now, six years later, Ekblad's roots have grown strong and deep in South Florida, and he takes pride in calling it his year-round home.
"I'm the only player on the team that stays here the entire summer," he said. "(Former Panthers goalie Roberto) Luongo was the other guy that used to; he's not a player anymore, but he's still here."
That's right, there will be no snowbird status for Ekblad.
He fully embraces his new Floridian lifestyle, right down to wearing shorts and sandals to the practice rink.
It's gotten to the point where he says he rarely returns home to Ontario, instead encouraging family members to visit his Fort Lauderdale home.
“Everything’s here,” he said. “I’ve got the gym at my house, I’ve got recovery room, membership at a golf course here in the summertime. My girlfriend goes to work and school here. It’s full-time here. It’s life. It’s home.”
Ekblad said that he hopes to start a family in South Florida and “live the life down here," but he knows the success he seeks off the ice will likely have to correspond with success on the ice.
“Listen, there’s pressure. There’s pressure every day. It is a business,” he said. "It is a job, at the end of the day, and if we don’t make the playoffs, then we’re not going to be here forever. They’re only going to handle that for so long.
“I try to go out and work as hard as I possibly can every night, while keeping that confidence and consistency at a stable level, and try to do whatever I can to help my team win.”