Florida Panthers fans can now officially celebrate the dawning of the Aaron Ekblad era. Two months after selecting him with the first-overall pick at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, the Panthers signed the 18-year-old defenseman to his entry-level contract Wednesday.
“We are very pleased to have signed Aaron,” said Panthers GM Dale Tallon in a statement. “He is a talented, strong, smart and hardworking defenseman who is ready to take the next step in his professional career. We look forward to watching him compete and develop at our prospects camp, throughout our main training camp and in preseason competition.”
Ekblad is expected to make the Panthers roster out of camp after spending the last three years with the Barrie Colts in the Ontario Hockey League. Tallon's statement even says definitively that he is "ready to take the next step in his professional career."
The young rearguard first came to notoriety in the hockey world when he was granted “exceptional player” status by the OHL, which allowed him to suit up in the league a year earlier than everyone else is eligible. He was the first defenseman to earn that distinction and only the second player in the league's history, with John Tavares being the first.
While at Barrie, Ekblad posted 116 points in 175 career games. In his draft season, the 6-foot-4, 217-pound blueliner had 53 points including 23 goals in 58 games, smashing his previous career highs in both categories. He also was named to Canada's national junior team and played in the World Junior Championship at age 17.
The Belle River, Ont., native did have a minor setback this summer when he sustained a concussion at Team Canada's summer evaluation camp for the World Juniors. He took a bad knock in an exhibition game against the Czech Republic. Ekblad recently stated that he resumed skating and will be ready for training camp.
The Panthers have good reason to be excited about their top pick. The solid two-way defenseman could make an immediate impact and help bring depth to a blue line that's starting to look pretty strong led by No. 1 D Brian Campbell.
Expecting Ekblad to knock those guys off their established roles early on would be a little too optimistic probably and the Panthers would do well to ease the youngster into his role. But based on his physical maturity, his progression in junior and his overall ability, Ekblad could potentially find himself in a big role by midseason if all goes well.
Having the contract out of the way, the team can now focus on seeing just what they've got as camps begin soon.