His colleagues in south Florida might respectfully disagree, but defenseman Aaron Ekblad – 20 years old by birth certificate, “a man-child” according to the general manager who drafted him – hasn’t always felt comfortable speaking up inside locker rooms filled with elder statesmen. “As a young NHL player it’s hard to take on a leadership role,” the Panthers defenseman says. “You try your best, keep your mouth shut and play hockey the way you know how.”
The situation is changing now, the demands greater. With former captain Willie Mitchell no longer under contract and likely headed for retirement, Ekblad will be counted upon even more during his third season in Florida. Even now, during training camp with Team North America for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, Ekblad finds himself in an unfamiliar spot – comfortable with head coach Todd McLellan after their time together at the 2015 world championships, expected to lead from the start.
“It’s going to be a lot easier to take charge, especially for a guy I’ve already played for, one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” Ekblad says. “To watch him and his craft and be a part of it, and again be a sponge, listen to every word he says, it’s going to be pretty awesome. I loved how well he was able to explain things to players. He dumbed down the game of hockey to some extent. We may have all played before, but he helped clarify a few things.”
The admiration for McLellan glows through the telephone. It’s the last Monday in August, roughly one week before Ekblad reported to Montreal and joined the talent-rich under-23 squad. A former Calder Trophy winner and a 22-minute-per-night workhorse for the reigning Atlantic Division champions, Ekblad was one of five defensemen named to the preliminary roster six months ago. The NHLPA even consulted him before the continental concept was announced, seeking feedback from someone almost guaranteed to make the squad.
“It’s hard to say I expected myself to be on the team, but I would’ve been fairly disappointed if I wasn’t,” Ekblad says. “I was happy.”
Indeed, Ekblad speaks like someone who understands what he wants from life, even before he can legally order something from the bar. It’s why his pregame meal of exactly one cookie remains intact. (“I still have my routine and I don't think I’ll change.”) It’s why he bought a house back home in Ontario last December. (“Luckily I was able to keep it within the first contract.”) It’s why, when and Ekblad became eligible to sign an extension on July 1, the eight-year, $60-million deal was finished before anyone blinked.
“It’s probably not the best negotiating tactic to come out and say it, but I always wanted to be in Ft. Lauderdale and Sunrise and play for the Florida Panthers,” he says. “I tried to make that known as much as possible and I think the team responded well to that. Their commitment to myself and my commitment to the team, I think it’s a great fit. I’m very happy.
“You see what the Florida Panthers have done, we went from a bottom-dwelling team to a team that made the playoffs and really, truly had a chance. Just the commitment they’ve made to spending money within the organization to bringing in the players and the veteran players and the marketing and advertising to get people out to games, there’s a commitment to the business and a commitment to the product we have on the ice. It makes it very desirable for a player like myself to be on a team like that. That, and of course the weather in south Florida can’t be beat.”
Looking back now, one month and one week before the Panthers’ 2016-17 season opens at home against New Jersey, Ekblad represented merely one track on an organization-wide remix geared toward the future. In the two days after Ekblad’s extension was signed, forwards Vincent Trocheck and Reilly Smith each re-upped through 2021-22. Puck-moving defensemen Keith Yandle and Jason Demers came aboard to replace Brian Campbell, who left for Chicago in unrestricted free agency, and Erik Gudbranson, who was traded to Vancouver in late May.
Around that time, the Panthers also restructured their front office, naming Dale Tallon their president of hockey operations and ceding day-to-day responsibilities to new GM Tom Rowe. Assistant coach John Madden, several team officials, and even two equipment managers were also shown the door.
“Different, for sure,” Ekblad says of the offseason overhaul. “I don’t want to disrespect some of the guys who left, but we have a whole new back end and we’ll see how we do with that, the chemistry we build and partnerships that we make. We’ll see how it goes, for sure. Pretty excited about it.
“There’s a lot of changes on the defensive side of our team, and maybe not so on the front, but some new commitments made with contracts for Rielly Smith and Vince Trocheck, soon to be [forward Jonathan] Huberdeau and some of the other guys. We have our foundation set for quite a few years to come.”
Ekblad will be part of that, no question, but in what capacity? Without Mitchell, whose battle with concussions sidelined him for the second half of last season, the Panthers currently have no captain. No replacement has been named yet, but given the reverence with which folks in Florida discuss Ekblad, handing the reins to the Panthers’ youngest blueliner would be a natural choice.
“In all honesty I don’t want to comment on it too much, because I’m not sure what they’re planning,” he says. “They haven’t talked to me. But theoretically if it did happen I’d be ecstatic. It’s a lifelong dream of mine to be the captain of a Stanley Cup-winning team. If that does happen, if it happens in the future, whatever happens, happens. I still feel I have a lot to learn. I don’t believe if I had the captaincy next year I’d be fully ready for it, but it’s something I’d grow into.”
No reason to suggest otherwise.