One common mantra heard in the hockey world is “defensemen take longer to develop.” Three years ago, this couldn’t have appeared to be further from the truth for Aaron Ekblad. Selected 1st overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, scouts touted him as one of the next great franchise defensemen. He followed up all the hype with an outstanding rookie season, posting 39 points from the blue line with an average of 21:49 in ice time per night. Ekblad dressed in 81 games as well, helped quarterback the powerplay, and won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. “Aaron Ekblad is struggling” would’ve been a laughable statement, at least for now.
Florida Panthers Aaron Ekblad is Struggling to Develop
Then, when everyone feared the dreaded “sophomore slump”, Ekblad produced nearly an identical year. He potted another 36 points, 21:41 in average ice time, 79 games played and even finished 16th in votes for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman. This kid looked like the real deal.
Suddenly, though, Aaron Ekblad is struggling. Last year it felt as though maybe the “sophomore slump” hit a season late. He had major difficulties leading the back-end, but many attributed this to the vast roster overhaul around him. Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson were traded, Brian Campbell left via free agency, and captain Willie Mitchell retired. That’s four regulars removed from the back-end, including Ekblad’s off-ice and on-ice mentors (Mitchell and Campbell, respectively). Not only that, but Ekblad experienced multiple concussions limiting him to 64 games.
The Difficulties Continue
The hope coming off last year was that Ekblad would bounce back. So far, that hasn’t been the case. Aaron Ekblad is struggling to return to his form from those first two years. The hardest part, too, is how high expectations are because of just how strong those first two years were. His ice-time is up to a career-high average of 23:54, but all other categories continue to regress. For example, as a rookie, Ekblad’s possession numbers were 54.3% Corsi and +4.4 relative. In his second season, he was at 51.4% and +3.8 relative. His third year was 52.1% and +2.1. At roughly the halfway mark, he’s at 49.2% and -0.9 relative this year. This is in addition to the offensive production dropping.
It isn’t just statistics, either. Ekblad gets caught out of position plenty already this year and turns over pucks that directly resulted in goals against on multiple occasions. Many Panthers fans regard Ekblad and Keith Yandle to be one of the worst defensive pairings the team has fielded in years. There is just no way around it: Aaron Ekblad is struggling and under-performing.
What’s the Deal with Ekblad?
At the end of the day, Ekblad was handed a lot of responsibility in a really short period of time. After all the defensive changes prior to last season, Ekblad and Alex Petrovic stood as the only regulars left on the blue line. Sure veterans Yandle and Jason Demers were brought in, but this was undoubtedly a transformed group. Built to move the puck efficiently and do damage offensively, the defensive core lost grit and toughness. Ekblad wasn’t, and still isn’t, the kind of player who can pick up much slack in those categories.
Without Campbell, Ekblad looked lost more than ever before. The same can be said this year, as he just hasn’t found that same level of chemistry with Yandle. The supporting cast around him on defence has not been strong enough to carry too much of the weight either. This has compounded the problem and left Ekblad with nowhere to hide.
Getting Back on Track
This is an issue that the Florida Panthers need to resolve itself fast. Ekblad is signed through 2025 for a monster $7.5 million per year. Furthermore, partner Yandle’s contract doesn’t end until 2023 with a hit of $6.35 million. They both have no-trade clauses to boot. Basically, Ekblad and Yandle have to lead from the back-end. This team needs more from the $13.85 million they’re putting towards these two.
Clearly, though, they haven’t been able to well together. The best option appears to be breaking the duo up in favor of maybe more defensive partners. Maybe it isn’t even a matter of having a “defensive” vs “offensive” partner, but just clashing styles and modes of play. Yandle and Ekblad don’t gel, even after roughly 100 games together, so something’s gotta give.
Splitting the Pair?
Not only should the two be put on separate defensive pairings, but the Panthers need to acquire another veteran defenseman. The team needs someone with experience that brings grit and brute strength to the table. This is an area that the team needs regardless of Ekblad’s personal performance, but it could really help him as well. If the team could trade for someone like the Anaheim Ducks Josh Manson, the Calgary Flames Michael Stone, or the Minnesota Wild Jonas Brodin or Jared Spurgeon, Ekblad might just snap out of his slump. He needs a strong partner whom he can rely on to make up for his shortcomings. Currently, it’s like he and Yandle share the same problems, so neither really makes the other any better.
Ekblad isn’t going anywhere. This organization needs to be putting as many resources as possible towards making sure he turns into the franchise defenseman they need him to be. There is a lot riding on his development for the Florida Panthers, so time is of the essence.
On the bright side, he’s only 21. Its definitely not time to panic, yet.
SAN JOSE, CA – FEBRUARY 15: Aaron Ekblad #5 of the Florida Panthers skates against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center on February 15, 2017 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images)