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.