Only twice in their history have the Florida Panthers used the top pick in the NHL Draft.
Both times they selected a strapping defenseman from the Windsor, Ontario, area.
Taking Ed Jovanovski 20 years ago worked out pretty well for the Panthers. They hope Aaron Ekblad does as well.
Ekblad became the latest member of the Panthers on Friday as Florida made the 6-4 blueliner the first selection in the 2014 draft at Wells Fargo Center.
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“It’s exciting. Florida has a young core and wants to win a Stanley Cup,” Ekblad, 18, said. “This team is going to be pretty good in a couple of years, and I want to be part of it. I just want to help out.”
Said Jovanovski: “I think he’s going to be a stud in this league for a long time.”
After weeks of speculation that general manager Dale Tallon would trade the first pick, Florida didn’t get the deal it wanted and stood pat. Tallon confirmed rumors Florida had offers from Vancouver and Philadelphia. In the end, Tallon didn’t get what he felt was enough to bypass Ekblad.
Tallon said he decided at noon on Friday that Florida would keep the pick and informed Philadelphia — which had made “substantial” offers as Tallon said — of his decision.
“We laid out all the pros and cons, what was best for the franchise, and by noon we decided to say no to the offers,” Tallon said. “Based on what we had, the kind of kid this is, he fits into what we’re doing. We have another 6-4 kid with character. We’re building this block by block. We’re building through the draft. He’s a man, a big, strong physical kid.”
Said new coach Gerard Gallant: “We knew the kid wanted to come to Florida, wanted to be the first pick. The kid knew he was coming when he walked out of our meeting. … Dale entertained all options. But I think he was always going to use it. He wanted that kid.”
Ekblad had been paying attention to the trade rumors via social media leading up to the draft, saying his phone was “blowing up.”
Tallon kept the suspense going by staggering his announcement, only leaking that the Panthers were “proud to select from the Ontario Hockey League,” before pausing for effect.
With other top prospects Sam Reinhart and Leon Draisaitl — who would go second and third, respectively — coming from the Western Hockey League, Tallon’s stall narrowed down things considerably.
“It was breathtaking to say the least,” Ekblad joked. “I was hoping for the best, hoping for my name to be called. It was a great experience.”
On the ice, Ekblad is expected to compete for a roster spot when training camp opens in September. Ekblad, who said he has never been to South Florida, should introduce himself to the locals at Florida’s development camp in July.
Ekblad, the first defenseman to be the first overall pick since St. Louis took Erik Johnson in 2006, believes he’s ready to play in the NHL right now.
“I believe in myself and I’m confident,” Ekblad said. “If you don’t believe in yourself, you’re behind the eight ball right off the bat. I’m going to work hard this summer and be ready to play in the NHL next year.”
Tallon said the expectation is Ekblad will be on the team next year although when Florida took Erik Gudbranson third in 2010, Tallon and the Panthers sent him back to junior for an additional year.
On Friday, Gudbranson — as well as Jonathan Huberdeau — welcomed Ekblad to Florida via Twitter.
“He’s 18 going on 30,” Tallon said. “Bobby Orr is a great friend and represents him. That helped as well.”
Allowed to enter the OHL draft early as a after being granted the rare “exceptional player” status by Hockey Canada, Ekblad seems confident enough to make the transition to the next level. Ekblad is one of four to receive that designation and the only defenseman.
But will he return to the Barrie Colts next year or stay in Florida?
“He’ll have a wonderful opportunity with us,” Tallon said.
When Ekblad comes south in the coming days, he said he wants to reach out to another Windsor-area boy who made good and was taken first 20 years prior. Not only would Jovanovski welcome a meeting, but he offered a little more on Friday night.
“I have few extra bedrooms so if he wants to, he can crash here with me,” said Jovanovski, Florida’s captain the past two seasons. “Players have extended that kind of invitations before and he sounds like a nice kid. Anyway I can help him I will.”