Thursday February 26th, 2015

Neither the oldest player nor the youngest player on the 2014–15 Panthers was on the team the previous season, when Florida finished with the second-worst record in the NHL. The oldest—until the arrival of Jaromir Jagr on Feb. 26—was 37-year-old defenseman Willie Mitchell, who signed with the team last August after having won the Stanley Cup with the Kings for the second time in three years.

The youngest, 19-year-old defenseman Aaron Ekblad, was the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL draft. He was just three years old when Mitchell entered the league in 1999.

Mitchell, the Panthers’ captain, was solid during the 2014–15 campaign, but it was Ekblad who helped vault Florida into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. He set franchise rookie records for goals (12), assists (27) and points (39) last season. He quarterbacked the power play, and he averaged 21:48 of ice time, second only to defensive partner Brian Campbell (23:13).

While December was Ekblad’s best month statistically, he continued to shine as the season progressed. On Feb. 10, he showed his penchant for the 200-foot game when he collected a pass inside the blue line from Jonathan Huberdeau on a rush and smoked a shot past Ducks goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov’s blocker, helping the Panthers to a 6–2 rout of Anaheim. On Feb. 19 against the Canadiens, Ekblad played 31 shifts and registered a season-high 27:38 of ice time in a 3–2 shootout victory.

Did we mention he’s only 19?

“People don’t understand how hard [it] is,” Mitchell said in early February, a few days before Ekblad’s 19th birthday. “Eighteen to play in the NHL is one thing. To succeed at a high level is another. To be one of the best players on your team is another. And to do it at a position which is the hardest position to break into in the NHL, is special.”

Mitchell who with his wife, Megan, shared his home with the precocious blueliner, added, “We have a tough stretch to get into the playoffs. And we don’t even stand a chance if we don’t have him.”

Though the Panthers ultimately faded and finished seven points behind the Penguins for the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card berth, Ekblad is a big reason why Florida’s future looks brighter by the day.

Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

Over the past 15 years, Florida has largely been relegated to laughingstock status in the NHL. The Panthers have only made the postseason once since the 1999–2000 season. The announced attendance for their second home game this season was only 7,311, the lowest turnout in team history.

But in Ekblad, Florida may have finally found the face of the franchise—complete with light scruff and a swoop of dirty blonde hair.

Despite his boyish countenance, Ekblad is, at 6' 4" and 216-pounds, an imposing physical specimen. But beyond his measurements, what’s most striking about him is that he won’t accept anything but being the best. He wasn’t just the top pick in the NHL draft last summer, he was the first player selected in the 2011 OHL Priority Selection draft. Being No. 1 means something to him.

“I’m a little bit stubborn, to the point where I’m persistent enough where I want to be the best in everything,” Ekblad says. “I’m not going to say I’ve always been the best, but I’ve always worked the hardest to be given the opportunities to be the best. That’s what I want. I just want to push myself to be better and better.”

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While the Panthers made their charge toward the playoffs, Ekblad built his strong case for winning the Calder Memorial Trophy, which honors the league’s best rookie. Predators winger Filip Forsberg was the early frontrunner, but it was Ekblad who earned a nomination along with two forwards, the FlamesJohnny Gaudreau and the SenatorsMark Stone. Ekblad came out on top in the voting, only the sixth defenseman since 1986 to win the award.

Making the leap to the NHL from junior hockey isn’t easy for any player. But for a young defenseman, the transition is arguably the toughest. Only six defensemen in NHL history have started a season at age 18 and finished with more than 25 points. Ekblad is one of them. His 39 points were only two shy of the NHL record for an 18-year-old defenseman set by his mentor and agent, Hall of Famer Bobby Orr, in 1966-67.

• SI Vault: Bobby Orr sets new standards of excellence (12/21/70)

For a young defenseman, Ekblad has a remarkable blend of poise, anticipation and reaction ability. But what sets him apart is that he also plays a full 200-foot game. His significant offensive contributions have led some in the league to make comparisons between Ekblad and his boyhood idol, Nicklas Lidstrom.

“They’re hard to find, players like that, and that’s why [Ekblad] was the first pick overall,” Florida general manager Dale Tallon says. “Usually it’s offensive and they’re not good defensively, or they’re good defensively and they don’t have any offense. But when you get the whole package, it really helps your franchise.”

That Ekblad has established himself as a force in the league so quickly has shocked even his biggest supporters. His parents, David and Lisa, both say they were just hoping for him to stick in the NHL at the beginning of the season.

Those who know Ekblad rave about his maturity. “He represents the game like we want players to represent the game,” Orr, considered the greatest defenseman of all time, says of Ekblad.

“It’s mostly been his maturity and his poise in the game,” says Panthers broadcaster and Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin. “He’s not the fastest skater, the hardest shot, the biggest guy, all that stuff. There’s not one thing you can point at.… But those are the guys that tend to be great players—much more cerebral than most.”

• SI Vault: Undaunted, unhaunted Potvin rids himself of Orr's ghost (4/16/79)

When Florida coach Gerard Gallant first encountered Ekblad at rookie camp, he couldn’t believe that the kid was only 18. “He’s more like a 23- or 24-year-old,” Gallant says. “And that’s the way he carries himself.”


Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Ekblad spent his childhood in Southwestern Ontario on the border between the towns of Tecumseh and Belle River. He grew up cheering for the Red Wings, who played just across the Detroit River, though he hated watching hockey.

“I hated it because every time I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can do this, I can be doing this, I can do this right now. Why don’t I go do it?’ ” Ekblad says. Instead of watching, he’d run outside to the closest pond—or bound down the stairs to his basement—to shoot the puck.

For as long as he can remember, Ekblad has been a defenseman. He claims he played one game in goal as a young boy and literally fell asleep in net.

He started turning heads early on, but his stock began to skyrocket when he was an adolescent. When Ekblad was 14, he was playing Triple-A hockey with the Sun County Panthers— no affiliation with the NHL Panthers—when his teammates started calling him First Ovie, short for first overall. The nickname proved to be a harbinger of things to come.

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Todd Lalonde, Ekblad’s coach in his final two years at Sun County, recalls that Ekblad disliked the nickname and did whatever he could to deflect it. “He could have been that cocky arrogant punk—he’d [have been] justified,” Lalonde says. “But he was the exact opposite.”

At Sun County, it became clear to Lalonde that Ekblad was destined for stardom. When Lalonde drilled his defensemen on picking up the puck under pressure in their own zone, Ekblad quietly asked Lalonde to give him the least amount of time possible to gain possession of the puck.

“I can remember him saying to put the pucks deeper in the corner and make it harder. What 14-year-old says that?” Lalonde says. “Most guys are cheating at the drill, and he wants to make it harder. I remember that unequivocally as the moment when I knew he was going to be an elite pro.”

In 2011, Ekblad became just the second player (Islanders captain John Tavares was the first) to gain OHL exceptional player status, which allowed him to enter the league at age 15. Before Ekblad could officially apply for exceptional status, however, he had to convince his mother that it was the right move.

While Ekblad’s father and older brother were enthusiastic about the opportunity to send Aaron to the OHL, Lisa was hesitant. She felt that Aaron was too young to move away from home, worrying about him going to a new school, how he would feel being separated from his friends back home, his safety, homesickness and the potential negative influence of older guys in the locker room. There was also the physical danger of her son playing against opponents who were five years older.

Aaron, too, had reservations at first. One day before he moved to the OHL, during practice with Sun County, he pulled aside Lalonde and asked his coach whether he thought he was emotionally ready to play in the bigger league. “What 14-year-old kid asks a coach whether he is emotionally ready to play? I kind of giggled,” Lalonde says.

Lisa remembers Aaron addressing her worries one by one, patiently doing his best to alleviate her concerns. He drew up a list of the pros and cons of a move to the OHL. Lisa ultimately came around—and the rest is history: Ekblad emerged as a star in the OHL with the Barrie Colts, leading to his selection with the top pick in the NHL draft.

“I kind of feel that about kids in society today—they experience everything so young, and then what? It almost seems like it’s too much too soon,” Lisa says. “But in his case, it worked out.” 

Dave Sandford/Getty Images

Both of Ekblad’s parents (above) say they aren’t entirely sure how their son got so mature. (“If I had a recipe, I would share it with you,” David says.) Aaron, though, credits his parents as his biggest influences, and his brother Darien—18 months his elder—agrees. “They were full of life lessons,” Darien says.

Darien, who played goaltender in the OHL before he started studying sport management at Niagara College, considers Aaron his best friend. They grew up playing hockey together, both on organized teams and in their basement. (During one basement session, Aaron broke Darien’s pinky toe with a shot.) Darien believes Aaron’s maturity off the ice made him a better hockey player.

“He was always kind of a softie when he was younger,” Darien says. “As he became older and more mature, he became more emotionally stable. That translated to his on-ice game too. He would bounce back from mistakes much quicker on the ice.”

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Ekblad, a teenager living across the country from his family, has learned to handle life as an NHL player. While adjusting to the travel demands has been difficult—particularly while playing against the best players in the world night after night—Ekblad hasn’t let the pressure overwhelm him. He is quick to credit his coaches and teammates for his development, particularly the tutelage of Mitchell.

Ekblad has also already learned to be thoughtful yet diplomatic with the media, even making sure to be deliberate about his Super Bowl pick. Prior to the 2014 season, Ekblad picked the Jaguars to win it all, because his father works for a company owned by Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan. The Jaguars finished 3-13.

Ekblad, who played in the All-Star Game on Jan. 25, isn’t a superstar yet. He’s the first to point out that a lot of work stands between him and his goals. Orr is quick to point out the same thing.

“It’s a grind for an 18-year-old, just turning 19,” Orr says. “It’s unbelievable what the kid is doing. He’s playing and he’s averaging 22 minutes a game. Amazing.”

Darien’s hockey career ended in the minors, but he doesn’t display any jealousy toward his brother. Instead, he discusses Aaron’s abilities and work ethic with a sense of awe.

“Growing up, for me I don’t know if I was ever committed to anything the way he was to hockey. It was almost like it was effortless even though he was putting in all the work,” Darien says. “Me coming short a little bit on talent in hockey, seeing his work ethic … I can kind of translate that to my academic life, in terms of career advancement and what not. He inspires me in that sense.”

During Florida’s surprising pursuit of the playoffs, Ekblad’s individual play remained steady, even as the spotlight grew brighter. Though turning around a franchise with major attendance problems and a history of losing is no easy task, Ekblad thrives under pressure.

“I appreciate a challenge and I play accordingly to that challenge,” he says. “The bigger the challenge the more I want to rise up to it.”

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