Wednesday March 9th, 2016

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — The NHL's reigning rookie of the year needs to make something clear. On game days, Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad prefers playing on an empty stomach. He eats a full meal after the morning skate but holds out until the puck drops without ingesting anything else—except for one cookie at the rink.

Just one cookie, though. No more. Ekblad cannot emphasize this enough.

“Everyone thinks I love them to the point I eat them every single day,” he says, the subject clearly stale for him after all the attention his teammates have paid to it. “It’s just my routine. It’s what I do. It’s just one cookie every other day. It’s not going to kill you. F---ing guys.”

It’s hard to blame his fellow Panthers for razzing him. Sure, strange things are happening down in Sunrise (see: Spacey, Space; Mullet, Jagr), but there is no surprise in a former No. 1 overall pick fulfilling his potential. Ekblad, the first defenseman ever allowed to enter the junior Canadian Hockey League a year early as an "exceptional" 15-year-old, has already been dubbed by Capitals coach Barry Trotz as having “Hall of Fame written all over him.” Nor is it shocking to see the now 20-year-old knocked down a peg for his rigid dessert table ritual.

“He doesn’t lack for confidence,” forward Vincent Trocheck says. “I think that’s a big part of what everybody needs, that attitude. If you have that as a young kid, you’re going to go a long way.”

Consider what Ekblad has already done in only 143 career games for Florida. Last season, he won the Calder Trophy and became the first teenage blueliner in five years to top 1,700 minutes as a rookie. As a sophomore follow-up, he ranks second among Panthers skaters in average ice time per game (21:17) and first among their defenseman in points (26). There was a reason why GM Dale Tallon instantly knew Florida would select Ekblad after he showed up for his pre-draft interview.

“He just blew us out of the water, because his professionalism and maturity was incredible,” Tallon says. “You go, this kid’s not 18 years old or 17. He’s 35. But he had a sparkle in his eye. He was sure of himself. He was a man-child for me. And I liked it. He had a smile on his face, he was positive, he was a classy kid. Very intelligent, worldly, all those things.”

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The bushy, lumberjack beard Ekblad has grown helps promote the whole age confusion issue—“I could shave and look like I’m 10 again,” he says, “I can switch it up”—but even a 20-minute chat with him at Florida’s practice facility supports Tallon’s initial evaluation. For instance, after moving from captain Willie Mitchell’s house, where he lived last season, Ekblad assesses the challenges of living alone like this:

“When I was 15, living with surrogate parents in juniors, that’s like 50 percent out-of-the-house, then living with (Mitchell's wife) Meg and Willie it was more 25 percent out in the real world, then this year was obviously that 100 percent change. [Living with others] was a really healthy buffer for me. I got to learn a ton of about the league, a ton about people in general, Willie’s experiences with just about everything in life, it really helped me.

“But you have to put yourself out there. People down here don’t really care about hockey in the sense that if you’re talking to a friend or something like that, you can leave the fact that you play hockey out of it, just have a normal conversation with someone. It brings you into the real world a little bit. Last year was more go home and sit with Willie and his wife and talk with them, which was amazing. They had so much insight on the world and life, but we didn’t go out very often, do anything like that. It’s a different experience and I’m enjoying it just as much.”

In other words, the kid who grew up beneath the spotlight is relishing his time in the shadows of south Florida.

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Two hours before the puck drops at home against the Arizona Coyotes, Ekblad moseys into the spacious hallway outside the Panthers’ locker room for the game before the game. The Panthers simply know their warmup activity as volleyball, but the sport is really a hybrid of it, tennis and soccer, played at a high-trafficked junction of BB&T Center’s rink level, with bike racks for nets. When Ekblad arrived, stacks of equipment bags and trunks for an upcoming road trip were blocking the court, so he began clearing space with mock indignation.

“Don’t they know we have a game?” he asks no one in particular.

For an outside observer, the competitive match quickly doubles as the Aaron Ekblad Comedy Hour. He chatters mid-serve to distract opponents and tugs defenseman Brian Campbell’s sweatshirt across the bike racks to hold him back. “F---ing stupid ceiling,” he mutters when a ball thuds off the tiles. After Ekblad boots a winner, backup goaltender Al Montoya offers a high-five, which Ekblad pretends to miss. Montoya then wraps him in a hug and grabs a handful of haunch. “Ow don’t pinch it,” Ekblad squeals. For no apparent reason, he also frequently caws like a bird.

Really, Ekblad is just another goofball on this strangely composed roster, where the ages of its top 10 scorers are, in order, 43, 32, 20, 22, 22, 24, 36, 19, 24 and 23. An interview conducted with Trocheck, in which Ekblad spent the majority of his answers discussing his affinity for counting seashells, demonstrates as much. But he also represents their future, a foundational fixture on the blue line equally capable of killing penalties and directing the power play. It’s why one Eastern Conference scout calls him both “perfect for the new NHL” and “a stud for sure.”

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About that future, Ekblad is quite serious.

“We want people to notice us,” he says. “As much as we like flying under the radar, not having to deal with all the scrutiny and that, we want to be on top and like being on top. People look at you, people want to talk to you and they pay attention to you.”

Ekblad admits challenges exist at the summit too, which the Panthers have recently learned. After a franchise-record 12-game winning streak rocketed them atop the Atlantic Division, an overtime loss on Monday at home against Boston netted them only their fourth point in six games. Tampa Bay recently overtook them for first in the Atlantic and the setback at TD Garden tied the Panthers with the Bruins, but they have one game in hand.

Almost assuredly, though, Florida will be making its first playoff appearance since 2011-12 (and only its second since 2000) and will earn its highest divisional finish since that last berth. Ekblad believes this should stun exactly no one.

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“It shouldn’t be, how the hell is this happening?” he says. “Look at the players in this room. It’s no coincidence. (Jaromir) Jagr’s one of the best players to ever play the game. We have some older guys who have won championships. We have Sasha Barkov who’s going to be the best centermen in the league one day, if not already way up there. We have a very, very strong back end. We have guys who can score, guys who can sit back and play D, we have great goaltending. I don't think it’s a coincidence and I don't think anybody should be surprised at this point.”

Indeed, Ekblad already speaks like someone who is ready to inherit a leadership role whenever the torches are passed, if they haven’t been already. Visitors to Florida’s website, for instance, see both captain Mitchell watching from the right and Ekblad from the left. “He has that aura about him,” Tallon says.

Self-awareness too. After moving out of Mitchell’s home, Ekblad hired a maid “because I’m not much of a cleaner.” He recognizes his role in pinning the nickname "Rotisserie Chicken" on center Nick Bjugstad after Bjugstad bailed on dinner with teammates and went to Publix instead. And when asked for differences from his rookie season, Ekblad offers this:

“A lot more confident in every play that I make. A little bit more mentally strong, if I make mistakes. Last year, you beat yourself up a little bit. You’re a young guy. You worry about what the other guys on the team are thinking, all that stuff. You’re worried about what everyone else thinks. You’re worried about what the media says about you.

“Your second year, in my mind, it’s just a completely different experience. I don’t care about what anyone else thinks. I care about what my teammates think, but I’m always trying to impress in that aspect. I don't know, you just feel less anxious, more confident in everything you do. You know that it’s a team game. If you make mistakes, someone’s going to help you. We’re a team here. We’re trying to pick everyone up.”

Well, at least when cookies aren’t involved.

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