Just six months ago, Aaron Ekblad sat on a riser in Philadelphia talking to the national media about getting the opportunity to play in the National Hockey League.
On Friday morning, Ekblad was back in a similar setting although no one was asking him how cool it would be to be the first overall pick in the NHL Draft.
No, this time the talk was of the 18-year-old being the youngest player at the NHL All-Star Game.
“It’s quite an honor,’’ Ekblad said. “I’m very lucky and fortunate. No doubt.’’
Originally selected to be just part of Saturday’s skills competition, Ekblad — whom the Panthers took first overall at the Philadelphia draft last June — was added to the All-Star Game roster on Friday after Colorado’s Erik Johnson backed out because of injury.
Ironically, Ekblad was the first defenseman taken with the top pick since St. Louis took Johnson in 2006.
“It feels long ago, but the journey leading up to this was much longer,’’ said Ekblad, who was playing Canadian junior hockey for the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League at this time last year.
“I didn’t know I would be coming here at all, didn’t think I would be playing in the game. It’s been a whirlwind. It’s all moved very quickly.’’
Now the Panthers have two players on an All-Star Game roster for the first time since Olli Jokinen and Sandis Ozolinsh were selected for the 2003 game held in Sunrise.
Florida traded Ozolinsh to the Kings just before that game was played.
Because of various injuries to All-Star selections — and veteran players already on vacation and unwilling to come to central Ohio — a few rookie selections have been tabbed to play in Sunday’s All-Star Game.
Although Ekblad acknowledged “there are tons of better players who could be here over me,” that doesn’t mean he’s not worthy to be on an All-Star team.
Ekblad is having an outstanding rookie season and turning heads in the process as 18-year-old defensemen aren’t supposed to be doing what he’s doing.
“I’m so happy for him,’’ Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo said.
“He deserves it, man, he’s been our best player on the ice all year. He’s so solid back there. He deserves it.’’
Ekblad already owns the Panthers’ franchise record for scoring by a rookie defenseman and is considered a strong candidate for the league’s rookie of the year award.
Competition for the Calder Trophy, however, is stiff as Nashville’s Filip Forsberg is the favorite as he comes into the All-Star Game — he was added as well — with 15 goals and 25 assists in 45 games.
If Ekblad keeps up his pace, he could garner more traction in Calder voting as he not only is playing a tough position but came straight out of junior hockey.
Forsberg made his NHL debut with the Predators during the 2013 season and split time last year in the minors and with Nashville but is still technically considered a rookie.
“We’ve played them a couple times and he’s been real tough to play against,’’ said Forsberg, who is two years older than Ekblad and played three years of professional hockey in his native Finland.
“He’s playing with huge confidence and is tough on both ends of the ice. He’s shutting people down on defense and putting up points on offense. He gives you everything you want from a defenseman and at that age, it’s impressive.’’
When the season started in October, there was little chance Ekblad nor the Panthers envisioned him being here at the NHL’s midseason showcase.
Ekblad didn’t have the best training camp as he looked a little shaky at times. When Florida played its opener in Tampa, however, things changed.
Paired with veteran Brian Campbell for most of the season, Ekblad hasn’t looked out of place save for extremely rare moments of levity. And even when he makes a mistake, Ekblad bounces right back and doesn’t let it affect his next shift.
“You have ups and downs, but he’s had very few downs this year,’’ coach Gerard Gallant said. “As coaches, we get upset when mistakes are made but that’s part of maturing. Everyone does it but it doesn’t bother the star players. It’s surprising he does that at his age.’’
Said Luongo: “In training camp, you could tell he was nervous. But then the regular season started and you didn’t notice that. He flipped the switch right away. You could never tell he’s 18. He’s that good. We’re happy to have him, for sure.’’