Early in Tuesday’s contest between Florida and San Jose, Panthers D-man Willie Mitchell fired a slap shot from the left point. The puck hit Sharks forward Tommy Wingels, took a favorable bounce for San Jose and fluttered past the blue line. Wingels pounced. Half a rink of empty space laid in front of him.
Suddenly, much of that empty space began to vanish. Florida blue liner Aaron Ekblad rushed down the ice, pivoted and casually shoved Wingels just in time to prevent a shot on net. Ekblad then retrieved the puck and sent it to Scottie Upshall, who orchestrated a successful breakout.
It wasn't a flashy sequence. You won’t see it on any highlight reels, and you won't hear pundits discuss it ad nauseam. But it was a perfect example of Ekblad's biggest strength: simple, effective, mechanically sound defense.
That turned out to be a pretty crucial moment. Several minutes later, the Cats scored two goals in a 1:22 span -- giving them a lead they would not relinquish. By winning 4-1, Florida pushed its record above .500 (5-4-4).
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Yes, Ekblad's defense has been impressive, but his contributions don't end there. In addition to the aforementioned play, he notched two assists for the second straight game on Tuesday, and has found the score sheet in four of his last five contests.
He now leads his team in points with eight (1 G, 7 A) and is tied for the most points among rookie defensemen.
That high assist output is a result of his stellar passing ability : Most of Ekblad's dishes are right on the mark, tape-to-tape.
Ekblad isn't afraid to join the rush, either. Though he's most valuable in Florida's end of the ice, he's proven capable of generating quality scoring chances. And with a low shooting percentage (5.0) and even-strength PDO (96.3), more goals are bound to come.
Ekblad's underlying numbers are also encouraging: During even strength, Florida's shot attempt differential is 12.9 percent better when he's on the ice. This is certainly influenced by his usage -- more in that in a second -- and could dip as sample sizes increase, but it's a great sign nonetheless.
Indeed, Ekblad's NHL career is off to a strong start. The jitters have subsided, and the 18-year-old is showing us why he was picked first overall in last summer's draft.
However, he isn't ready for the workload that comes with being a true No. 1 defenseman. That will change -- perhaps this year -- but Ekblad needs more time to develop before embracing a shutdown role.
So, for now, Panthers head coach Gerald Gallant has been making things rather easy for his prized freshman.
For starters, pairing Ekblad with Brian Campbell was a wise choice. Campbell, a Stanley Cup-winning veteran who can serve as a mentor, has been a huge help -- and it's reflected in the numbers: When the two are on the ice together at 5v5, Florida is taking nearly 60 percent of all shot attempts.
"He was originally going to be paired with Willie [Mitchell] but we've got [Dmitry] Kulikov with Willie," GM Dale Tallon told NHL.com. "Having [Campbell] there is important because Aaron knows that if he gets into trouble, he can dish it off and [Campbell] can lug out the mail. It's a good pairing."
A prototypical puck-moving defenseman, Campbell makes a living "lugging mail." And when Ekblad finds himself in trouble, he knows where to look.
"I've said it about 10 times now, [Campbell] is one of the most gifted players in the league defensively and offensively," Ekblad told Fox Sports Florida. "It's pretty awesome to play with a guy that's so good, so confident, so poised and likes to take risks and make plays. I love that kind of game."
In terms of deployment, Gallant has made a conscious effort to give the Ekblad/Campbell duo a lot of offensive zone starts. The chart below from war-on-ice.com illustrates this.
As time goes on, we’ll see Ekblad’s bubble slide left. We’ll see it move up, too, as the young rearguard will soon be exposed to stiffer and stiffer competition.
If the last month is any indication, he'll take these new challenges in stride. Ekblad has a long way to go, as do the Panthers, but he is definitely on the right track.