The Florida Panthers selected first overall for the first time in 20 years and just as they did in 1994, they took the top defenseman available at the NHL Entry Draft. Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts was the Panthers' top choice, giving them a possible immediate addition to their blue line and one of the better defensive prospects over the last few drafts.
Ekblad comes in at 6-foot-4, 214 pounds, similar in size already to the guy the Panthers picked first overall in 1994, Ed Jovanovski. The 18-year-old is good at both ends of the ice and possesses immense physical strength that makes him difficult for opposing forwards to handle. He also put up 23 goals and 53 points last season.
There's a school of thought that taking a defenseman with the top pick is a risky play and that's true. It hasn't worked out for some teams in the past, most recently the St. Louis Blues and former No. 1 overall Erik Johnson, who is now playing for the Colorado Avalanche. However, in a weakened draft class with no real consensus for the top pick, the Panthers filled a need within their prospect system, while making their 2014-15 roster better in the process.
The youngster first came to notoriety when the Ontario Hockey League granted him “exceptional player” status in order to enter the league a year earlier than his peers. The first player to receive that distinction and only one prior to Ekblad was current New York Islanders captain John Tavares. So he's in elite company in that regard.
The thing to wonder about Ekblad, and it's a concern voiced by scouts far and wide, is how much better he is going to get. As a physically big player already compared against his fellow players under the age of 20 in the OHL, he has the potential to dominate. He won't be to do that at the NHL level.
That said, he has excelled at just about everything he's been asked to do and possesses enough hockey smarts and skill to get by. With a pro-ready frame and high-end abilities at both ends of the ice, there's reason to believe he can get better and grow into a top-flight defenseman.
Assuming his skating improves, which it does need to do, and he continues to tack on strength to his already beastly frame, he's probably going to be a strong NHL defenseman that projects as a top-pairing player not terribly fair down the road.
Passing on the top forwards available had to be easier for the Panthers knowing they have some tremendous youth up front including Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Brandon Pirri, Vince Trocheck and numerous other prospects on the cusp of becoming full-time NHLers.
The Panthers have several young defensemen on their roster and in their system already, but Ekblad is probably going to rise up the depth chart. He very well could turn into the defenseman that the Panthers were hoping Erik Gudbranson could be, but has not become yet.
Ekblad's physical stature often overwhelms the discussion, but his offensive tools are notable. He has seen his point totals improve in each of his three seasons in the OHL and his goals shot up immensely this year thanks to a devastating shot.
Concerns about upside are warranted, but there are concerns about upside and actual talent with a lot of players in this draft. He's not necessarily the safe pick, but no one player projects safely in this draft. At this moment, Ekblad is the best player and should be considered the right pick for the Panthers in the No. 1 slot.
Considering the Panthers reportedly got multiple trade offers, holding onto the pick and taking Ekblad shows you just how much they think of him. It remains to be seen if this will pay off, and it may be years before we can say with any certainty, but as of draft night, the Panthers made a strong pick in taking Ekblad first overall.
The Top Five
1. Florida Panthers -- Aaron Ekblad, D, Barrie Colts (OHL)
2. Buffalo Sabres -- Sam Reinhart, C, Kootenay Ice (WHL)
Sam Reinhart doesn't have tremendous size, but he has a load of skill and hockey smarts that combine to make him a high-scoring centerman. He'll head to a team that has a large group of prospects, but Reinhart should head to the top of that list. He put up 105 points in the WHL last season and was a top contributor on Canada's World Junior entry.
3. Edmonton Oilers -- Leon Draisaitl, C, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)
The highest German-born player ever selected, Draisaitl is a big, productive centerman who can light up scoreboards with skill. He is a tremendous finisher who can get to the net with power. That strength makes him very difficult to defend. He'll fit in to a growing forward group that is long on youth, but light on size. Draisaitl comes in and brings something Edmonton lacks up front. Playing in the Western Conference, a guy like Draisaitl could do a lot of good for the Oilers.
4. Calgary Flames -- Sam Bennett, C, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
The Flames may feel fortunate to nab the player that NHL Central Scouting named the No. 1 prospect in North America. Sam Bennett needs to tack on some strength, but he has tremendous puck skills and vision. He put up 91 points, but also had 118 penalty minutes. While he may lack size, he plays an aggressive brand of hockey and does so effectively. To have that level of skill and still bring some of that pugnacity to the ice is going to make him a guy other teams hate to play against.
5. New York Islanders -- Michael Dal Colle, LW, Oshawa Generals (OHL)
The Islanders nabbed a high-scoring, highly-skilled winger to add to a group that includes some sensational youngsters like Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome. He put up 95 points including 39 goals for the Generals last season and brings a lanky frame with some intriguing puck skills. He may not be ready to hop into the lineup right away, but this is a guy who could one day end up on John Tavares' wing and put up some big points for the Isles.