To Roberto Luongo, Aaron Ekblad looked like a nervous rookie in training camp. The Florida Panthers weren't quite sure what they had right away in the No. 1 pick.
Quickly, it was clear they had a legitimate NHL defenceman who was ready to contribute immediately.
"It's crazy: Once the season started you didn't notice," Luongo said. "He flipped the switch on right away. You could never tell that he's an 18-year-old playing in the NHL. He's that good."
Ekblad's splendid rookie season breaks the trend that even the best young defencemen — like Seth Jones, Dougie Hamilton and Jacob Trouba — require some time to adjust. Averaging more than 22 minutes a game, he has nine goals and 23 assists and is a front-runner for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
Around hockey, Ekblad's performance isn't surprising given how he progressed for the Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts. Barrie goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood said Ekblad was already a pro while playing at the junior level, and scouts agree.
"Aaron's been on this path and every year he's continued to take it in the right direction," said Dan Marr, head of NHL Central Scouting. "So I can't say anybody's surprised. I think he's living up to expectations. You just never know until they're put into that situation how they're going to handle it, but so far he's handling it the way everyone had hoped he would."
Ekblad credits a strong support system that includes three generations of defencemen: his agent Bobby Orr, Panthers colour analyst Dennis Potvin and Florida captain Willie Mitchell, with whom he lives.
"I've been very lucky," Ekblad said. "It's made it a little bit easier for me to step in and just play and enjoy it."
After a rough training camp and pre-season that Ekblad said was part of getting used to the speed, skill and physicality of the NHL, he forced the Panthers to keep him around. Put in a top-four role on the blue-line, he handled the pressure and expectations while playing alongside steady veteran Brian Campbell.
Ekblad's biggest adjustment was to the schedule and travel, but he tried to have a "steady incline" in his play, and it paid off. Luongo called him Florida's "best player on the ice all year."
Orr credits rookie coach Gerard Gallant for using Ekblad well and putting him in positions to succeed.
"Florida's done a wonderful job with the way they've used him," Orr said. "This kid is just playing unbelievable hockey and the way he reads it. He hit the wall a little bit and he knew enough not to try to do as much."
Ekblad, who just turned 19 on Feb. 7, makes his first trip to Toronto on Tuesday when the Panthers visit the Maple Leafs. The Windsor, Ont., native has two assists in three games in Canada during his rookie season.
He's well on his way to joining some rare company — Tyler Myers, Drew Doughty, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Cam Fowler and Jay Bouwmeester — by playing more than 1,600 minutes as a teenage rookie. Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook, who broke into the league at 20, said it's "remarkable" to see what Ekblad is doing.
Other opponents have similar respect for Ekblad's play.
"He's playing with huge confidence and is tough on both ends of the ice," said Fillip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators, Ekblad's biggest Calder Trophy rival. "He's shutting people down on defence and putting up points on offence. He gives you everything you want from a defenceman and at that age, it's impressive."
Count Don Cherry among those impressed.
"I really thought he was good," Cherry said. "But, man, I didn't know he was that good. It's like he's about 25 years old. Haven't seen too many guys like that, I'll tell you. He's a beauty."
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