Ekblad ready to bounce back from frustrating year

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This post is part of Panthers Day on PHT…

The 2016-17 season was a disappointing one for the entire Florida Panthers organization. A young team that seemed to be on the rise badly regressed, went through a tumultuous season on and off the ice, and struggled to keep some of its best players healthy. The offseason has left some pretty big question marks as well.

It was also a frustrating season on an individual level for one of the Panthers’ best young players, defenseman Aaron Ekblad.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, Ekblad burst onto the NHL scene in his first two years in the league and looked to be quickly developing into one of the top young defenseman in the league. And to be fair, he still is. But the 2016-17 season was probably his worst one to date. Along with missing 14 games due to injury, his production dropped across the board when he was on the ice. He admitted no Wednesday that he may have “cruised” through his first two years a bit too much.

Here he is talking to NHL.com’s Dan Rosen about it this past week:

“The last year of my rookie contract was by far the year that I learned the most,” Ekblad said, referencing last season. “I may have cruised through my first two years a little bit too much. The real work began this summer. I truly believe that and I truly believe I’m the most confident and ready that I have ever been to play the game.”

He also acknowledged that a season like this past one is where a player fully begins to understand how difficult the NHL is.

It is important to keep in mind that even though Ekblad did regress a bit this past season he still had a decent season by NHL standards. He was on a pace to score 12 goals, come close to 30 points and he was a 52 percent Corsi player on a mediocre possession team. It’s not like his game completely fell off the map in just his third season. But there is still a higher level that Ekblad can play at (and he has shown it) and the Panthers are going to need him to be at that level. Not only because he is a former No. 1 overall pick that the team is relying on to be a top-pairing defenseman, but because starting this season they are starting to pay him like one.

The 2017-18 season will be the first year of his eight-year, $60 million contract extension and for that sort of investment to be worth it the Panthers are going to need to him to be closer to the 2014-15 and 2015-16 Ekblad (and probably beyond it) than the 2016-17 Ekblad.

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