Aaron Ekblad entered the 2014 NHL draft as the unquestioned top defenseman in the class. Because of that, he didn't wait long to hear his named called as the Florida Panthers selected him with the No. 1 overall pick Friday night in Philadelphia:
NHL.com has an interview with Ekblad after the pick:
Forwards Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett received plenty of hype entering the draft, but it can certainly be argued that nobody measures up to Ekblad's all-around skill set.
Ekblad was a dominant force in three seasons with the OHL's Barrie Colts and he clearly improved by leaps and bounds with each passing year. Ekblad's defensive acumen was on full display in 2012-13. He posted a plus-29 rating, while his offense reached new levels in 2013-14 with 23 goals and 53 points.
He was so good, in fact, that many considered him to be the clear No. 1 prospect in this class, according to Terry Koshan of the Toronto Sun:
Asked six scouts at the #NHL combine today who they would take first overall if it was their choice. Every one said Aaron Ekblad— Terry Koshan (@koshtorontosun) May 31, 2014
Although comparing a player to an all-time great before he ever plays an NHL game is speculative to say the least, Ekblad is the total package much in the same way former Detroit Red Wings blueliner and future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom was.
High picks play in the NHL right away more often than not, but players aren't usually handed the opportunity. It's hard to imagine another year of juniors helping Ekblad at all, though. Leading up to the draft, he made it clear that playing in the NHL in 2014-15 is very much on his radar, according to TSN 1050 in Toronto:
"I wanna play in the NHL this year, that's my goal" Aaron Ekblad on Game Day from the NHL Combine pic.twitter.com/XWAi0Cvr66— TSN 1050 Toronto (@TSN1050Radio) May 31, 2014
Based on everything Ekblad did with Barrie as well as the manner in which he carried himself during the pre-draft process, it is extremely difficult to imagine him playing anywhere other than the NHL when the 2014-15 season starts.
Stephen Whyno of The Canadian Press had high praise for Ekblad's personality and demeanor.
Aaron Ekblad wins the award for most polished, composed 18-year-old hockey player I've ever talked to. Can play a little, too.— Stephen Whyno (@SWhyno) May 31, 2014
It seems as though Ekblad already has the mental makeup necessary to handle the rigors of the NHL season. In addition to that, though, he is already good enough from a physical perspective to be productive right away.
According to Jeremy White of WGR 550 in Buffalo, New York, Buffalo Sabres assistant general manager Kevin Devine was extremely impressed with Ekblad prior to the draft:
Kevin Devine on Aaron Ekblad - He's a big horse, already a man...good on both sides of the puck. Probably 25 minutes down the road.— Jeremy White (@JeremyWGR) June 4, 2014
Even though Ekblad has been an elite player at the junior level for a few years, he hasn't allowed that to breed overconfidence. He likely knows exactly how good he is, but he also knows that he still needs to get better.
Per Sportsnet's Mike Johnston, Ekblad has already picked out a few areas in which he hopes to improve leading up to the NHL season:
My foot speed and my power and my stride. I think that's always going to be one of the most important things for me. The learning curve to moving the puck quicker or shooting harder, I think that all comes with experience and working at it. My foot speed is something that I can work on in the summer, really hone in on and get better at, and it'll help me a lot to play in the NHL next year.
It is often difficult for young defensemen to transition to the NHL immediately in comparison to forwards. One mistake from a rearguard can result in a goal against, while that isn't necessarily the case when it comes to a forward.
Who most deserved to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft?
As seen last season with Seth Jones of the Nashville Predators, though, it is entirely possible for a highly skilled defenseman to make the jump right away. Ekblad is on that level, so all signs point to him being able to pull it off.
The 2015 draft is already receiving plenty of attention since forwards Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are viewed as surefire NHL superstars. That has caused some to brush aside this year's class and overlook players like Ekblad, but he has all the tools necessary to be a perennial All-Star.
Now is when the hard work truly begins for Ekblad, but based on everything he has done up to this point, he should be an overwhelming success in the NHL.
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