Aaron Ekblad went to the All-Star Game in Columbus, Ohio, last year a fresh-faced rookie who didn’t seem in awe of all the assembled talent around him.
Originally selected for the skills competition, Ekblad gained a spot in the actual game when another player backed out the day before.
“Hopefully I’ll get another chance at this sometime later in my career,’’ Ekblad said after notching four assists in the game.
Ekblad didn’t have to wait long for his next shot at being an All-Star.
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This year, Ekblad’s play earned one of three defensemen spots on the Atlantic Division team alongside past Norris Award winners Montreal’s P.K. Subban and Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson.
For the second consecutive year, Ekblad will take part in the All-Star skills competition as well as the game.
This time, however, his inclusion in the game was based on his merits and not someone else dropping out of the festivities.
All-Star weekend kicks off Friday in Nashville with the Skills Competition on Saturday and the new 3-on-3 tournament-style All-Star Game on Sunday.
“It’s 100 percent more rewarding,” Ekblad said. “I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be there last year. It’s not something you want to be involved in if you’re not supposed to be there.
“I was a rookie, just taking it all in, and then I’m playing in the game. I think the experience will help me this year, but this is much more rewarding. And it’s rewarding for my team.”
Ekblad is the second-youngest All-Star, a few months older than Detroit rookie Dylan Larkin, who was drafted 15th by the Red Wings last June in Sunrise.
“Maybe he’s not 19,” coach Gerard Galland said of Ekblad’s maturity. “He could be 23. He’s a young superstar.”
The reigning Calder Trophy winner as the league’s rookie of the year, Ekblad is opening eyes around the league.
Aside from Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau’s Calder wins, as well as a pair of Rocket Richard goal-scoring trophies for Pavel Bure and Brian Campbell’s Lady Bing, the Panthers don’t have many NHL award-winners in their trophy case.
With Ekblad, however, that could change in the coming years.
Already considered one of the top young defensemen in the league — he’s a lock for the North American “young guns” team at the World Cup of Hockey this summer — Ekblad is quickly making a name as one of the top players at his position throughout the NHL.
Ekblad said one of his goals growing up was to someday win the Norris Trophy for top defenseman in the league, and just two years into his NHL career, he’s already being mentioned as a possible candidate for the prestigious award.
Another of his goals: “I want to win the Stanley Cup with my team here in Florida.”
Ekblad’s maturity has made him a standout since he stepped onto the ice for the Panthers’ season opener in 2014 at Tampa.
“The way he plays such a complete game at his age is very rare,’’ said Gallant, who will coach the Atlantic team in Nashville.
“When you see young defensemen, they have skill and move the puck but they have trouble in the defensive zone. Now, [Ekblad] makes mistakes like everyone, but not near as many as you would think. He has skill and composure. He doesn’t get rattled. There’s no doubt he’s a great all-around player.’’
When Ekblad is asked which players he grew up idolizing or hopes to emulate, he rattles off a who’s who of top NHL defensemen such as Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Roman Josi and Drew Doughty.
Ekblad doesn’t claim to be at their level right now, yet the gap appears to be closing by the day.
“The most important thing to remember is that I’m not 30 yet,” Ekblad said. “I still have to take things a day at a time, keep working hard. I want to be a great player so I’ll keep working on it. … I haven’t done really anything in my life yet. That’s the way I feel.”
Growing up across from Detroit in Windsor, Canada, Ekblad followed the Red Wings closely.
It’s no surprise Niklas Lidstrom was his favorite player.
“Of course,” Ekblad said. “That’s an obvious one for me.”
Gallant played for the Red Wings from 1984 to 1993 and watched Lidstrom’s first two NHL seasons as closely as one could.
Does Gallant see similarities in Ekblad’s game?
“It has to be Lidstrom,” Gallant said.
“It’s not [just] me saying it, it’s everyone saying it. Obviously Lidstrom is a Hall of Famer. Now if the kid keeps going the way he is, he’s going to have a chance at that. We hope he continues that path and we don’t see why he won’t. He does it every night for us. It’s hard to believe he’s 19.”
Ekblad’s value to the Panthers was on display earlier this month.
After being boarded by Edmonton’s Matt Hendricks on Jan. 10, Ekblad suffered a concussion and missed the next four games.
The Panthers watched their 12-game winning streak end in Vancouver in Ekblad’s first game out of the lineup.
Florida ended up losing four consecutive games, not winning again until Ekblad returned last Friday against Chicago.
Coincidence or not, Ekblad hasn’t been on the ice for a Florida loss since Dec. 12 in Boston — a run of 15 consecutive victories.
“In the end, I’m part of this team,” he said. “So when we lose, even if I’m not on the ice, it’s a loss. It stings just as much and made me want to get back even more.”