Tag: Willie Mitchell

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

It’s Florida Panthers day on PHT

Ryan Whitney, Aleksander Barkov, Tom Gilbert, Jonathan Huberdeau

Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Florida Panthers.

The Florida Panthers winning the Southeast Division seemed pretty fluky when they did it in 2011-12 – and not just because of those 18 “charity points” – but that run only seems like more of a mirage today.

The Panthers have only made the playoffs four times since entering the league in 1993-94 and haven’t won a playoff series in any year except that magical run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that some of the greater themes heading into 2014-15 bring about something of a “broken record” feeling.

Get this: the best reasons to feel excited about this team lie in their collection of young players. To add an extra pinch of nostalgia, Roberto Luongo’s there to absorb a lot of pucks.

(At least Luongo as Panthers goalie 2.0 sends out some hilarious Tweets, though …)

On the bright side, some of those young talents really are intriguing. Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov could convert more of their promise into production next season. The Panthers grabbed another high-end prospect by zeroing in on Aaron Ekblad with the No. 1 overall pick and could develop another useful player or two if things break their way.

This year’s team also carries some parallels with the last one that made the playoffs in that they added a new head coach and a ragtag group of free agents. One may quibble with the deals Dave Bolland and/or Willie Mitchell received, yet there’s no denying that GM Dale Tallon added some championship experience to the mix. Then again, grabbing an underrated player in Jussi Jokinen could end up being the best move Tallon made this summer.

That said, it’s difficult not to wonder how much longer Tallon can continue to flounder, even in a lower pressure atmosphere like this. Pessimists may argue that this team really isn’t in that much better of a place than where they were when he was hired in 2010.

This is about that time when franchises get itchy to see some real improvement, and even if Florida has suffered from a lack of front office stability in the past, there’s also the risk of complacency.

Ultimately, new head coach Gerard Gallant and an interesting mix of veterans and youngsters will determine if this season will be a memorable one or just another snoozer in Sunrise. If nothing else, it’s tough to imagine things getting worse than they were last season.

Looking to make the leap: Brayden McNabb

Brayden McNabb

If there’s something we’ve learned from watching the Los Angeles Kings the past few seasons it’s that keeping an eye on their young players is worth doing.

After watching Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson take the playoffs by storm this past season and Alec Martinez and Dwight King do the same in 2012, there’s always new faces to be mindful of. One such player next season could be defenseman Brayden McNabb.

The Kings acquired McNabb from the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline this past season and at 23 years old, he’s got all the makings of being a new, physical force on L.A.’s blue line.

Last season, McNabb was an AHL All-Star with the Rochester Americans. In 38 games with Rochester, he had seven goals and 29 points. While he had a chance to play a bit in Buffalo (12 games, no points, six penalty minutes), he was sent to the Kings and broke out with the Manchester Monarchs.

In 14 regular season games there, he had three goals with seven points and 18 penalty minutes. He had one assist in four playoff games for the Monarchs and was a “Black Ace” for the Kings during their run to the Stanley Cup, but it’s his 6-foot-4 and 205 pound frame that has the team holding out high hopes.

The Kings lost Willie Mitchell to the Florida Panthers in free agency, potentially opening a spot in their top-six. According to those close to the team, McNabb will get every chance in training camp to win the job.

McNabb will have serious competition against veterans Robyn Regehr and Jeff Schultz, but even if he doesn’t win right away, we’ve seen what happens with young Kings players as the season winds down and the playoffs ramp up. With a heavy shot and a physical game, he could be paired with Slava Voynov at some point.

‘The talent was always there’ in Florida, says Luongo

Vancouver Canucks v Florida Panthers

The Panthers haven’t fared very well over the last two seasons — finishing 29th and 30th overall in consecutive years — but, according to veteran goalie Roberto Luongo, that lack of success wasn’t due to a lack of talent.

“I like it — the talent was always there,” Luongo said in previewing the upcoming campaign, per Vancouver’s Team 1040 radio. “We had a lot of good talent in the young kids, but we needed to surround them with some good veterans.”

Florida has been stockpiling talent for quite some time now, and should (theoretically) reap some of the rewards this season… even though all that talent is still remarkably young. Former Calder winner Jonathan Huberdeau, 21, is entering his third professional campaign, while Finnish center Aleksander Barkov — who is still just 18 years old — will embark on his sophomore year.

Big things are expected from another 18-year-old, Aaron Ekblad, the first overall pick at this year’s draft and it’s also worth noting that Nick Bjugstad, last year’s leading scorer, just turned 22 last week.

But as Luongo mentioned, veterans were in big demand to help these kids along. That’s partly why Florida GM Dale Tallon went on a summer spending spree, dropping more than $53 million to bring in the likes of Dave Bolland, Shawn Thornton, Jussi Jokinen and Luongo’s former teammate in Vancouver, Willie Mitchell. In Bolland, Thornton and Mitchell the Panthers inherited five Stanley Cup championships; they also brought aboard a veteran NHL coach in Gerard Gallant with the aim of providing stability after going through two coaches (Kevin Dineen and Peter Horachek) last season.

“I’ve heard a lot of great things about our new coach,” Luongo explained. “I think for our team, honestly, it’s a matter of making sure everything comes together at the beginning of the season with the new coaching staff.

“If we can stay healthy, I think we’ll be in the mix.”

Panthers re-sign Kulikov: three years, $13 million

Dmitry Kulikov

The Florida Panthers have locked up one of their young defensive cornerstones, inking Dmitry Kulikov to a three-year, $13 million extension on Friday.

Kulikov, 23, is coming off a campaign in which he set career highs for games played (81) and goals (eight). The Russian rearguard also averaged nearly 22 minutes a night while finishing second among Florida defensemen in hits and fourth in blocked shots — as a result, he’ll now pull in $4.3M annually and become the team’s second highest-paid blueliner in the process.

The Panthers’ first-round selection (14th overall) at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Kulikov is the third young d-man to re-up with the team in recent weeks — eight days ago, Erik Gudbranson inked a two-year tender and four days ago, Dylan Olsen signed a two-year deal as well. With those deals in place, Florida projects to have a potential top-six defense of Brian Campbell, Willie Mitchell, Aaron Ekblad, Kulikov, Gudbranson and Olsen… which isn’t too shabby at all.