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

The Panthers are healthy scratching Bolland, and he is their highest-paid forward, but they insist they’re not sending a message

Dave Bolland, Derek Nansen
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It feels like there’s a story brewing in Florida, where Dave Bolland — the team’s most-expensive forward, at $5.5 million a season — has been a healthy scratch for three consecutive games.

But according to head coach Gerard Gallant, there’s nothing to see here. Move along.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Gallant said, per the Miami Herald. “He sat out, our team is playing well. There’s nothing more than that. We have to sit two guys and I like the way we’re playing. The next game is a different game. We may change something up, who knows.”

Bolland had just one goal and five points in 18 games prior to getting parked in the press box. Well, technically he got dropped to the fourth line before hitting the press box, but you get the idea. He’s not exactly in Gallant’s good graces.

Not helping Bolland’s case is the fact that, as Gallant pointed out, the club is playing pretty well without him. The Panthers have rebounded from a rough start to November by winning back-to-back games against the Islanders and Red Wings, which set them up nicely for the remainder of this current five-game road swing.

Florida has games still to play in St. Louis, Nashville, Columbus and New Jersey. It’ll be interesting to see when — or, if — he draws back into the lineup.

In closing, a reminder that Bolland’s in the second of a five-year, $27.5 million deal.

Canucks rookie Virtanen exits with upper-body injury, won’t return


After sitting out Friday’s game in Dallas, Vancouver’s Jake Virtanen had to be excited at drawing back in for tonight’s game against the Ducks.

Unfortunately, the excitement didn’t last long.

Virtanen suffered an upper-body injury after playing just 1:45 in the opening frame, and was ruled out of the contest during the intermission. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but it looks like Virtanen was injured on a hit by Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf.

Virtanen didn’t take another shift following the incident, and Getzlaf was given a minor penalty on the play.

While we don’t know what the injury is or it’s severity, losing Virtanen for any length of time would have ramifications for the Canucks and this year’s Canadian entry at the World Juniors. There has been talk of Virtanen possibly being released by the Canucks to participate in the tournament; last year, he was part of the team that captured gold in Montreal and Toronto.

Virtanen has played in 18 games for the Canucks this year, scoring one goal and four points while averaging 10:17 TOI per night.

McLellan sounds off on Oilers after shutout loss in Toronto

Todd McLellan

Edmonton lost for the fourth time in five games on Monday, a 3-0 defeat in Toronto that marked the second time in a week the Oilers have been shut out.

Needless to say, the head coach wasn’t happy.

In a fairly blunt and harsh assessment aimed at a variety of players, Todd McLellan had some choice words for what he called a “disappointing” effort.

Some of the more choice quotes:

“I didn’t think we were a very hard team. I didn’t think we stood over a lot of pucks. I didn’t think we won a lot of battles along the boards. I didn’t think we were competitive enough in a lot of areas.”

“When I look at the trip as a whole, we had some key, key people really under-perform on the trip. Significant minus numbers, not hitting the score sheet. It can’t always be the [Leon DraisaitlTaylor Hall line] that provides that.”

It’s fair to suggest that last one was directed at Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle.

Nugent-Hopkins has just two points and zero goals in his last five games, with a minus-8 rating. Eberle is pointless entirely, and also at minus-8 over the same stretch.

They’re hardly the only Oilers not pulling their weight at the moment, however. Edmonton has lost 15 times in its first 25 games, a figure that suggests there are more problems that just a couple of underachieving forwards.

Just ask McLellan, who all but admitted his team has issues matching up.

“We’re not where we need to be,” he said. “We’ve got work to do as a team, work to do as an organization to get bigger, stronger, harder, and physically win more battles than we lose.”

Roy: Avs ‘need, expect more’ from Varlamov


The tough times continue for Semyon Varlamov.

After another unsuccessful outing on Monday — allowing four goals on 27 shots in a loss to the Islanders — Varlamov was subjected to a familiar refrain: Patrick Roy saying the Avs need more from their No. 1 netminder.


You can hear all of the head coach’s comments in the video above but, for brevity’s sake, here’s the Varlamov stuff:

“It’s not easy for him. Obviously we need that extra save and we didn’t get it on the road. It’s hard to win if you’re giving four goals on the road.

“We just need more from him. He’s our No. 1 guy and we’re behind him, but we need, we expect more from him.”

There has to be serious concern about Varlamov right now, if there wasn’t already.

His save percentage through seven games in November (.891) is marginally better than it was through seven games in October (.889), and that’s not the only alarming stat. Varlamov’s yet to record a shutout this year, yet to record back-to-back victories and has given up at least three goals in six of his last seven starts.

Not good.

Compounding things for Colorado are the standings. The Avs are now 9-14-1 and mired in the Central Division basement, meaning that — if they have any hope of going on a tear and getting back into playoff content — they’ll need to do it soon.

Which means they might not have the time, or the patience, for Varlamov to find his game.