SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers are off to one of the best starts in the team’s long and frustrating history, storming out to a 14-4-4 mark as we near the midway point of the latest pandemic-shortened season.
That’s right, Florida is just six games away from its 28th contest of the year, exactly half of the compacted 56-game slate NHL teams are flying through this winter and spring.
One of the most consistent elements of the surging Panthers has been the team’s top defensive pairing of Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar.
It’s no secret that the ascending rearguards are best buds off the ice, a friendship that began when the two were drafted just six players (and 363 days) apart; Weegar was selected with the 206th pick (out of 211) in the 2013 NHL Draft and Ekblad was taken first overall in 2014.
The strong relationship that has developed over the years allows the pair to not only share tips and tricks of their trade, but also discuss things that may not be so pleasant for some athletes to hear.
That mutual respect is key in order for both players to feel comfortable bringing up things that the other may have done wrong, and address areas where each can improve.
“We hold each other accountable, and that’s what you want from your partner,” said Weegar. “I think he likes it when I get after him, and I like when he gets after me. It makes us a lot better.”
“It’s a positive relationship, there’s no doubt about it,” added Ekblad. “Whether we are criticizing each other or trying to lift each other up to be the best we can be, it’s a very positive relationship.”
Ekblad and Weegar are also each playing at an extremely high level while still entering their prime years at just 25 and 27 years old, respectively. They are constantly pushing one another to be better and expand the limits of their abilities.
“I’ve always said I love his creativity and the things he tries to do with the puck,” Ekblad said. “He’s not afraid to make plays, and we’re not afraid to make mistakes.”
Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville has not been shy about deploying the duo in any situation, particularly against opposing teams’ top forwards.
Having that kind of confidence and versatility in a top pairing, that they can play key shifts on both ends of the ice, is a luxury not all coaches are afforded.
“It’s been in a good match, they like playing with one another,” Quenneville said. “It’s a good fit. They’re playing significant, significant minutes and matchup minutes, which puts us in a good spot with that type of predictability.”
It also helps that both players are able to contribute offensively without having it negatively affect or impede their ability to defend, which is not an easy balancing act for any NHL defenseman.
Examining just 5-on-5 play, Ekblad and Weegar have combined for 17 points (4-13-17) and a plus-4 on-ice rating while holding nearly identical Corsi For Percentages (53.9 for Weegar, 53.8 for Ekblad).
“As far as generating offense, those guys are as good as any pair in the league,” Quenneville said.
Looking beyond the statistics, the chemistry between Ekblad and Weegar is not only as clear as day but it’s been growing like a weed as this season has progressed.
They can anticipate the other’s moves regardless of the zone or situation, an aspect of their duo-deployment that is only blossoming and improving with each shift.
For Weegar, it’s unlike anything he has ever experienced during his two-plus decades on the ice.
“No, I’ve never had this before in my career, for sure,” he said. “We get along so well, but we definitely have our battles. We’re not afraid to confront each other if one guy is not playing well, and I think that’s what makes us a great pair.”
Ekblad compares his on-ice bond with Weegar to one he felt when first breaking into the league. Back then, Ekblad was paired up with veteran Brian Campbell, one of the best responsible offensive-defensemen of his time.
Campbell took Ekblad under his wing, helping the then-teenager win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie and earn back-to-back All-Star selections in his first two seasons.
“I thought I had it with Brian Campbell, and it was great,” Ekblad said. “Obviously it was a little bit more one-way, as I didn’t know a lot at that point in my career, but he was a great steadying force and I find (Weegar) to be the same way. Both are extremely creative players and I get to watch and read off them.”
The bond and camaraderie between ‘Eckie’ and ‘Weegs’ is fun for their teammates to see, as well.
Not only do they set a great example and play key roles on the ice, but they do it in a way that’s infectious to everyone around them.
“You can tell they’re having fun and they’re both playing great,” said Panthers alternate captain Keith Yandle. “They’ve been a main reason why we’ve had the success we’ve had so far this year. They complement each other really well on the ice and obviously they’re tight off the ice as well, so it’s one of those things that is fun to see.”
As for Coach Quenneville, he suggested that Ekblad and Weegar resemble the top defensive pairing from his championship days in Chicago.
The duo of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook played an integral role in leading the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup titles in six years and have earned their reputations as two of the most clutch performing playoff defensemen in recent memory.
“It reminds me of a young (Seabrook) and (Keith) back in the day, where those guys were getting familiar with one another, hung around one another and were inseparable,” Quenneville said. “(Ekblad and Weegar) remind me of those two guys, and you know their story was spectacular. If these guys could ever come close to doing that, it would be pretty special.”