Ekblad making his mark as an NHL rookie
By Aaron Bell
Aaron Ekblad has already enjoyed several special moments in his young NHL career but stepping onto the ice for his first NHL game last Thursday has been the highlight so far.
Ekblad played a little more than 19 minutes and picked up an assist on a Jonathan Huberdeau goal that tied the game in the third period. The Lightning went on to win the game in a shootout. He played 20 shifts in his first game but the first one will stick in his mind for the rest of his life.
“Obviously, that was a moment to remember but I think every game this season will be a game to remember,” Ekblad told the Sun Sentinal. “My goal was to get progressively better every day, every game and I think that’s what I’ve been doing so far.”
Ekblad was the first overall pick in the NHL Draft last June and has been eying up an NHL career ever since joining the OHL’s Barrie Colts as an underage under the CHL’s Exceptional Status rule in 2011.
Three years later, Ekblad is an NHL rookie with a mountain of expectations ahead of him. But, he doesn’t mind that spotlight one bit.
“If you don’t believe in yourself you’re putting yourself behind the eight-ball,” Ekblad told NHL.com after signing his first NHL contract last month. “I do believe in myself. I feel like I’m ready. I couldn’t be in a better position than where I am.”
Ekblad has partnered up with veteran defenceman Brian Campbell, who won the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHL’s top player in 1999 with the Ottawa 67’s. That was right around the time that Ekblad was first learning to skate.
“He’s a good player, and we know he’s going to be,” Campbell said of his rookie partner. “He’s going to make some mistakes, but I like him. He sees the ice really well and he makes plays that I’m impressed with.”
Ekblad was the captain of the Colts last season and scored a career high 23 goals and 53 points in 58 games. He was named the best offensive and best defensive defenceman in the OHL’s Eastern Conference coaches poll. He also won the Max Kaminsky Trophy as the OHL’s top defenceman.
Now, he’s focused on making the transition to the NHL.
“He’s big and strong enough and he’s got the ability, so it’s a matter of adjusting to the pace,” Panthers GM Dale Tallon said. “It’s a different pace. Going from juniors to the NHL is a big step, especially on the back end.”
Ekblad knows that it’s a big jump and he’s hoping to find the same success that he had in making the jump to the OHL a year early.
“I think I just need to come in and prove my work ethic and my ability to play against men,” Ekblad said. “Obviously it’s not an easy league. It’s fast-paced. It’s hard-hitting. And it’s smart. It’s an intelligent game and only intelligent players can play in this league.”
Ekblad is one of 10 CHL-eligible players who are 1995 and 1996-born currently active on NHL rosters.