For years now, the hockey world’s eyes have been on a young man from Belle River, ON currently playing for the Barrie Colts in the OHL. And now that his draft-eligible year has finally arrived, he finds himself in a battle to hear his name called first overall at the 2014 NHL Draft.
ISS Hockey has ranked Aaron Ekblad behind Kootenay Ice centre Sam Reinhart so far this season. He was also rated an A-level skater by NHL Central Scouting. He’s pleased with the ratings — but he’s not exactly happy.
“I guess it wasn’t exactly a surprise to me. It’s something that I’ve always looked forward to and it’s something that I’ve focused on my entire life,” he said. “It’s motivating to me — when you see yourself up there as number two, you want to be there as number one.
“You want to keep pushing yourself to put yourself in the best possible position come Draft Day.”
Ekblad, who is performing at almost a point-per-game pace from the blueline (seven goals, 11 assists, in 20 games), said he’s aware of how Reinhart’s been playing, but he’s not exactly following him.
“It’s more of a casual thing. I’m not watching him or anything,” Ekblad said. “He’s playing his own game and I’m playing my own game, right?
“What it comes down to is what teams need and I’m just going to focus on playing my game and it will take me where I want to go.”
If Ekblad has an advantage over his cohorts in the 2014 draft, it’s the fact that he’s used to the type of attention that’s traditionally the domain of potential top draft picks.
“I’ve been under the microscope for a long time now, being one of those exceptional players. It comes with a lot of scrutiny and it comes with a lot of people watching me every night — whether it’s scouts, or agents, all of that kind of stuff,” he said “They’re all watching to help me fine-tune my game and I really appreciate all that help.
“It’s always been pressure, but pressure is what I make of it. I turn it to motivation and I try to make sure that I’m not looking at that pressure negatively; I try to be positive about it and use it to help my game.”
Ekblad explained that’s the philosophy he’s embraced since he first entered the OHL.
“Of course, there’s always that pressure. People are trying to compare you to certain people — they’re trying to compare me to John Tavares, which is impossible — I mean, he’s a forward and I’m defenseman,” he said. “But you’ll see it all the time — people trying to make that link because he’s exceptional. It’s a pressure and, again, it’s what you make of it.”
It’s a pressure he, in part, brought upon himself. In many ways, Ekblad represents the opening of an exceptional player floodgate, after whom both Connor McDavid and Sean Day followed in subsequent years. Prior to Ekblad, only Tavares in 2005 had entered the league using the status essentially created for him.
And after three years of scrutiny, attention, and growing up in a league traditionally dominated by 18 and 19 year olds, Ekblad wouldn’t change a thing.
“It was one of those things that, at the time, I made the right decision. Now, it’s still the right decision,” he said. “You can see that in the way I play hockey and the way that I carry myself as a person. I don’t doubt myself for a second doing it, and I would do it a thousand times over again. I think anyone who has ever done it before would say the exact same thing.
“It’s helped me a lot in my development as a player and a person. I’ve met a lot of great people along the way, and it’s been a great three years in Barrie.”
As a 17-year-old this year, Ekblad is the team’s captain. He said there’s added pressure that comes from being an exceptional player and he’s used that to deal with the pressure of being a young player, but team leader, on the rebuilding Colts.
“I already do. I’ve played a lot of big roles on this team since I was 15 years old,” he said. “I’ve played on the power-play, I’ve played the penalty kill. I’ve played in every situation, whether it’s with two minutes left or to start the game. I’m the captain of the team. I take great honour in that opportunity.”
Ekblad exudes a maturity that betrays his years. With all the attention he receives on the ice, he knows that people are watching him off the ice. He is polite, courteous, and mature — and that just comes naturally, he explained.
“I guess it’s kind of just the way I am,” Ekblad added. “You can’t really change the person you are because of what you’ve done in your life.
“What you’ve done in your life kind of makes you the person you are — that’s the way I look at it.”
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to improve. Ekblad said he’s always looking for ways to improve his game and is quick to self-identify a deficiency.
“The biggest thing is my footwork,” he said. “Whether it’s being able to make up for mistakes that I make and get back into play, whether it’s evading certain situations or getting up the ice quicker, that’s always been my biggest ordeal.”
In the end, the path to the top of the draft boards, Ekblad explained, is through the team. And he’s looking to bring a few others — including draft eligibles like Kevin Labanc and Brendan Lemieux — along with him.
“With team success comes individual success and vice-versa, so if I focus on helping the Barrie Colts win games this year, it’s going to help me individually and it will help other guys increase their spot,” he added.
Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard