Growing up in Windsor, ON, just across the river from Detroit, Aaron Ekblad followed the Detroit Red Wings as a child. He attributes watching Nicklas Lidstrom as the reason he wears the number five today.
After going first overall to the Florida Panthers in the NHL Draft last month, Ekblad began his NHL journey this month at the Panthers annual development camp, taking the first step toward playing in the professional ranks.
To the surprise of no one, Ekblad received high marks from the coaching staff and other players at the camp, particularly from Panthers’ Director of Player Development Brian Skrudland, the former captain of the 1996 Florida Panthers.
“Impressed,” Skrudland said. “Impressed with the way he treats everybody. I’m also impressed in the way that the guy can skate, shoot and play the game of hockey. He’s a very heads-up individual.”
Ekblad mentioned improving his skating as the thing he focused on most, but was also quick to say he’s still looking to improve across the board.
“I want to get a little bit stronger in my upper and lower body,” Ekblad told the media in his first interview at the camp. “The full realm of my game needs to get better before I can play in the NHL.”
Another noticeable attribute that Ekblad brings, as do a lot of the defensemen in the Panthers organization, is size. At 6’3″ and 216 pounds, many of his peers and coaches made mention of him being an 18 year-old kid trapped in a man’s body.
“It’s not only the size, but the mobility of these guys today,” Skrudland said. “I’m in awe when you get out on the ice and see how fast they are and how mobile. There’s a good chance that some of them will have an opportunity here very shortly, if not this year.”
Ekblad definitely stood out throughout the week’s practices and and in the camp-concluding scrimmage. During the week, he excelled in puck control drills and the mini 3-on-3 scrimmages in practice.
On the final day’s scrimmage, he had a bit of a shaky start. A strong forecheck early in the scrimmage saw Ekblad turn the puck over and eventually Mike Vecchione tallied a goal past goaltender Hugo Fagerblom for the scrimmage’s first goal.
Ekblad settled in quick and had several good chances later, one of which he blasted past Evan Cowley in the midst of Team Blue’s comeback from a 3-0 deficit. He showed flashes of brilliance and dominance at times during that final scrimmage, providing a sign of things to come for Ekblad, a guy who seems comfortable with the spotlight on him.
“You’re not making the team this week but you are setting an impression on the staff, the media and the fans that are here watching,” Skrudland said. “First impressions are lasting impressions. His attitude has been great, effort has been fantastic and we’ll look forward to seeing the progress of his development over the summer.”
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