Aaron Ekblad

Looking to make the leap: Aaron Ekblad

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For the first time since the 1994 NHL Draft, the Florida Panthers had the first overall pick in June, and just like they did in ’94, the Panthers used their No. 1 selection to take a defenseman.

Twenty years ago, it was a kid by the name of Ed Jovanovski out of the Windsor Spitfires organization, who was tabbed to be the franchise’s next star.

In 2014, those pressures are squarely on the shoulders of blue liner Aaron Ekblad.

Ekblad may be just 18-years-old, but comparisons to fellow fresh-faced rookies begin, and end, there.

 

At 6-foot-3 and 216-pounds, Ekblad is a behemoth among his peers and its that size, coupled with his hands, which the Panthers are hoping will help the Belle River, Ont. native make the leap to the NHL just three months after selecting him.

“I’m really impressed with his hands,” Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon told the Florida Sun Sentinel last month. “I knew he was a well-rounded player, but I’m really happy with his skills … how he handles the biscuit, how he moves it and how he shoots it.

“He’s really got tremendous skills for a kid that size and that young.”

Billed as a two-way defenseman with a cannon for a shot, Ekblad would be a welcome edition to a Panthers blue line, which is taking shape nicely.

In addition to Ekblad, Florida has budding stars Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson to go along with savvy veterans such as Brian Campbell and Willie Mitchell.

Bryan McCabe, who is on the Panthers’ player development staff, knows a thing or two about making the leap to the NHL. During the 1994-95 season, as a 20-year-old, McCabe played his rookie season with the New York Islanders.

“He can move; he has a heavy shot from what I saw; he’s composed and mature for his age,” McCabe told the Sun Sentinel. “He’s very confident, not cocky, but he believes in himself, which is a great attribute for a young kid.

“We certainly don’t want to rush any kids, but if he comes into camp and proves he can play we’re certainly not going to sent him back.”

Ekblad is learning from the NHL veteran.

“Just how much it takes,” Ekblad told NHL.com last month. “We had a good talk with Mr. McCabe. It’s just amazing how much mental toughness and how physically and mentally prepared you have to be to make it to the next level. It’s a big jump and I’m really excited and aware of what I have to do.”

Eklbad still has two issues as he moves forward to Panthers’ mini camp in September.

First, he’s coming off of a concussion suffered during an exhibition game at Canada’s player development camp earlier this month.

Ekblad, who is symptom free, has not skated since suffering the injury Aug. 5, but according to TSN is expected to get back on the ice this week.

He is also without a contract.

Tallon didn’t appear concerned when talking about Ekblad’s contract situation last month.

“We’ll wait until rookie camp,” Panthers GM Dale Tallon told the Miami Herald. “He handled himself very well as prospect camp, did a good job. I’m not worried about that. We’ll get him signed when the time comes.”

According to Bob Duff of the Windsor Star, Ekblad should expect the maximum allowable under the collective bargaining agreement for rookies.

Ekblad will likely receive a three-year entry-level contract with a base salary of $925,000. As Duff points out, the maximum signing bonus allowed is 10 percent of the base salary, which amounts to $92, 500 in each of the three years.

Under the CBA, Ekblad is allowed to earn bonuses, which cannot exceed $2.85 million per season.

So Panthers’ fans should expect Ekblad to sign a three-year deal in the neighbourhood of $11.325 million in the coming weeks leading up to the start of the 2014-15 season in October.

Related: Panthers’ power play can only improve next season

Schwartz (hand) suffers scare at Blues practice, but Hitch says ‘he’ll be fine’

St. Louis Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz celebrates after scoring during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Florida Panthers, Friday, Feb. 12, 2016, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
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You couldn’t blame the Blues for freaking out a bit today when Jaden Schwartz left practice after an apparent hand injury, and didn’t return.

It was last October, of course, when Schwartz fractured his ankle during practice, an injury that required surgery and sidelined him for 49 games.

Thankfully for St. Louis, it won’t be deja vu.

From the Post-Dispatch:

Coach Ken Hitchcock said Schwartz was fine but would miss some practice.

“He’ll need a couple days off, but he’s a lot like Fabbri,” Hitchcock said. “He’s probably not going to skate this weekend in any of the games but he’ll be ready to go next weekend.

“He’s day to day. He’ll be fine.”

Signed to a five-year, $26.75 million extension this summer, Schwartz will be a big piece of the Blues moving forward.

He’s coming off a good playoff run — 14 points in 20 games — and the club is hopeful he can build on the goalscoring form shown in ’13-14 (25 tallies) and ’14-15 (a career-high 28).

 

Kucherov won’t report to Bolts until he’s signed

TAMPA, FL - APRIL 16: Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning is checked by Danny DeKeyser #65 of the Detroit Red Wings in front of Petr Mrazek #34 in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on April 16, 2015 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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Nikita Kucherov will not report to Tampa Bay Lightning training camp until he’s signed. The 23-year-old winger is not currently under contract, though as a restricted free agent he is partially under club control.

From the Tampa Bay Times, which confirmed through GM Steve Yzerman that Kucherov would not be reporting:

Kucherov, the team’s leading scorer last season, could warrant $6 million or more annually. And that makes it difficult for the Lightning, which has between $5-5.5 million of cap space remaining, per CapFriendly.com. It begs the question whether Tampa Bay may need to make another move to create room. With the season opening two weeks from today, no deal appears imminent.

Yzerman said earlier in the month that he can get Kucherov signed without making a trade, but as mentioned, no deal has been reached yet.

Kucherov is one of a handful of high-profile RFAs who remain unsigned as the regular season approaches. The others are Johnny Gaudreau, Rasmus Ristolainen, Jacob Trouba, Hampus Lindholm, Rickard Rakell, and Tobias Rieder, the latter of whom requested a trade yesterday.

Trouba has also requested a trade.

Related: Ristolainen, still without a contract, makes ‘good will’ gesture towards Sabres

Another — yes, another — blow for Dallas as Janmark spotted on crutches

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 22: Mattias Janmark #13 of the Dallas Stars looks on against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on October 22, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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This has been a forgettable month for the Stars.

To say the least.

Having already lost Tyler Seguin (heel), Cody Eakin (knee) and Ales Hemsky (groin) to injury — and Valeri Nichushkin to the KHL — Dallas could now be without versatile Swedish forward Mattias Janmark, who was spotted on crutches Thursday at the club’s practice facility.

Janmark missed Wednesday’s game against Colorado, and was held out of today’s training session.

After surprising onlookers by making the Stars out of camp last year — a “great story,” according to GM Jim Nill — Janmark, 23, went on to have a pretty successful rookie campaign, scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 73 games.

He also fared well in the playoffs, with five points in 12 contests.

If there’s a silver lining to any of this, it’s that Dallas has arguably the NHL’s deepest forward group. Even with Seguin, Eakin, Hemsky, Nichushkin and Janmark out of action, the Stars can still roll the likes of Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp and Jiri Hudler, and still have one of the league’s premier point producers on defense in John Klingberg.

That said, the team really can’t afford any more guys getting hurt.

Ristolainen, still without a contract, makes ‘good will’ gesture towards Sabres

BUFFALO, NY - JANUARY 22: Rasmus Ristolainen #55 of the Buffalo Sabres makes a pass during the game against the Detroit Red Wings on January 22, 2016 at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Tom Brenner/Getty Images)
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Rasmus Ristolainen doesn’t have a contract yet, and he’s not particularly close to getting one either.

But the Sabres defenseman, a restricted free agent, doesn’t want to burn any bridges, so he arrived at KeyBank Center on Thursday as a “good will” gesture, reports The Buffalo News. He’ll practice with his teammates, head coach Dan Bylsma confirmed.

“Everyone knows how dedicated he is to his training, and he wanted to continue to build on the gains he made this summer,” Ristolainen’s agent, Mike Liut, wrote in an email to the News. “In the end, this made sense to him, at least in the short term.”

The eighth overall pick in the 2013 draft, Ristolainen had nine goals and 32 assists in 82 games for the Sabres last season.

“I still trust that we will make that contract happen,” Ristolainen told reporters a couple of weeks ago at the World Cup in Toronto, where he was representing Finland. “I like Buffalo. I want to be there as long as I can and I feel they feel the same way about me. I trust it’s going to be taken care of.”

Related: Rieder’s agent thinks trade from Coyotes is best for both parties