CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – One of the more unsung heroes for the Florida Panthers this season has been defenseman Aaron Ekblad.
Playing his sixth year in the NHL after being selected first overall by Florida in 2014, Ekblad saw his all-around game blossom under new head coach Joel Quenneville.
The former Calder Trophy winner put up career highs in points (41) and assists (36) during the regular season, despite playing a career-low 67 games.
It’s also worth noting that Ekblad’s offensive outburst came during a year in which almost all of his points were collected at even strength.
Why is that impressive? Here are two main reasons.
One- High-scoring defensemen traditionally do most of their damage on special teams. If you’re a d-man with above-average offensive skill, odds are you’ll be working the point while your team is on the man advantage. For the Panthers, a team that has utilized four forwards on their five-man power play unit this season, the first blueliner off the bench in that situation has been Keith Yandle.
To his credit, Yandle had an exceptional year when Florida was up a man, logging 21 of his 45 points on the power play. It's a job he does well, but one that will probably be handed to the younger, still-developing Ekblad in the next season or two. Knowing that, and looking at the progress he's made year-over-year, it's not inconceivable to see Ekblad as a 60-point candidate in the not-too-distant future.
Two- The majority of Ekblad's five-on-five time has been spent with him matched up against some of the best players in the NHL. Quenneville and assistant coach Mike Kitchen, who runs Florida's defense during games, have often looked to match the opposition's top forwards against Ekblad and his preferred defensive partner, MacKenze Weegar.
Playing consistent shut-down defense somehow didn’t stand in the way of both Ekblad and Weegar posting career years in scoring…while both recorded the fewest games of their respective careers…and 88 percent of their points were accumulated at even strength.
Now that you have a better understanding of why Ekblad was so quietly valuable to the Panthers this season, it's easier to appreciate why him suddenly missing back-to-back practices with an unknown injury is more than a little troubling.
"Not fit to go today," was the answer from Quenneville when asked about Ekblad's second consecutive absence.
Quenneville wouldn't elaborate on whether the issue Ekblad is dealing with was something that happened during a practice, only that he had not been away from the rink despite missing his recent on-ice work.
Volunteering that Ekblad has been at the facility indicates he has not tested positive for COVID-19, which is obviously a major concern when the league is trying to get a 24-team postseason going amid a global pandemic.
According to the NHL's Return to Play Plan, any player who tests positive would be isolated from the team according to CDC guidelines until he was deemed fit to return, with timelines varying depending on whether the player was symptomatic or asymptomatic.
That means whatever the issue keeping the 24-year-old off the ice may be, it does not appear to be coronavirus-related, and it’s certainly not going to be disclosed by Quenneville.
"We'll see how it goes over the next few days, but he was around today," Q said.
A minor injury suffered during the middle stages of training camp is one thing, but it also wouldn't be the first time that an ailment was grossly undersold by a head coach in order to create the illusion that he wasn't about to lose a key player, all in an attempt to deny the opposition a chance to game plan for the obvious disadvantage.
Q was asked if there was any concern that Ekblad could miss either Wednesday's exhibition game against Tampa Bay or Saturday's Qualifying Round opener against the New York Islanders.
"He'll be ready to go for the real games."
“A DREAM COME TRUE”
Due to the domino effect Ekblad's absence had on the lineup, talented young forward Aleksi Saarela found himself spending Friday's practice skating on the left side of the Panthers number one forward unit with Aleksander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov.
While Quenneville said some of the changes were "just for today" it didn't stop Saarela from having another standout practice, a growing trend during the midsummer training camp.
The chance to skate with Florida's top forwards is quite an opportunity, one he earned due to a very consistent training camp that has not gone unnoticed by his coach.
"He can do some unique things when he's around the puck area," said Quenneville, who has mentioned Saarela's strong July several times over the past 12 days.
For the young sniper that was acquired from Chicago in exchange for defenseman Ian McCoshen all the way back in October, sharing the ice with Barkov, his fellow Finnish countryman, carries some extra weight.
"I'm super excited," he said. "I played my first pro game against Barky. I've always looked up to him and it's kind of a dream come true to play with him on the same line."
Saarela was referring to making his Liiga debut against Barkov’s Tappara club, the same one Sasha recently acquired an ownership stake in, when both were teenagers in 2013.
Now grown men working on establishing their respective NHL careers, the two young Finns are hoping to make a dent in the Stanley Cup postseason when things get started in Toronto next week.
What that means for Saarela is yet to be seen, but one thing working in his favor is that there is a growing familiarity between the youngster and Florida's coaching staff.
"We had him around a couple times during the year," Quenneville said. "In games, he does a lot of interesting things. I think he's still got some things to learn, as well."
Based on the lines that Q has been rolling with since camp opened, Saarela won't be on the ice when Florida opens its best-of-five Qualifying Round against the Islanders next Saturday.
That doesn't mean the 23-year-old won't have his number called at some point during the series.
There have already been discussions among the coaching staff regarding ways to work Saarela into the lineup. His hard work and dedication to learning Quenneville’s style of play is showing through in spades during training camp, which, combined with Saarela’s elite-level shooting ability, makes it extremely difficult for Q and his staff to justify keeping him out of the lineup.
“We have some decision making to do as we go forward,” Quenneville said. “He does push us to make some tough decisions.”