Florida Panthers

Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad in contention for rookie of year

Aaron Ekblad, 19, is in contention to win the Panthers’ second Calder Trophy, which goes to the league’s top rookie, in three seasons.
Aaron Ekblad, 19, is in contention to win the Panthers’ second Calder Trophy, which goes to the league’s top rookie, in three seasons. Getty Images

Dale Tallon realized it in one of the first conversations he had with the towering defenseman.

It took a few games until the bright lights of the NHL, but his teammates figured it out pretty quickly as well: This Aaron Ekblad kid is a pretty special player.

The top overall pick in the draft last June, Ekblad is now in the conversation to win the Panthers’ second Calder Trophy, which goes to the league’s top rookie, in three seasons.

Although Nashville forward Filip Forsberg got a lot of early Calder talk, lately Ekblad has garnered much attention — not only for his play but also for his position.

It’s rare to see an 18-year-old jump into the league and play top-pairing defenseman minutes as Ekblad has with the Panthers.

It’s even rarer to see him excel at that position and be a team leader at such a young age.

Jonathan Huberdeau won Florida’s first and only Calder Trophy after the lockout-shortened 2013 season.

“It would be great, it would be awesome,’’ Ekblad, now 19, said after scoring Florida’s lone goal in Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Canadiens in Sunrise.

“It has been a goal of mine, but my focus is on the Florida Panthers.’’

Ekblad will have plenty of competition for the Calder with Forsberg finding a new forward challenger in Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau.

Known as “Johnny Hockey,’’ the rookie out of Boston College came into Monday with 22 goals and 61 points.

Forsberg has 24 goals and 67 points; Ekblad has 12 goals and 37 points.

Unlike those two, however, Ekblad is in his first non-junior season.

Forsberg, 20, spent three seasons playing professionally in Sweden before joining Nashville in 2013. Forsberg spent time with the Predators as well as in AHL Milwaukee last year, coming into this season with 65 professional games in North America.

Gaudreau, 21, spent three seasons playing collegiate hockey at Boston College putting up strong numbers for the Eagles.

In three seasons, Gaudreau — who played with newly signed Florida defenseman Mike Matheson — scored 78 goals.

“We play different positions, so however the media chooses, I have no idea,’’ Ekblad said. “I know for a fact the guys going after this trophy are great guys. Best of luck to whomever wins it.’’

Ekblad is not only playing a position that is tougher to assimilate to, but he’s doing it after playing on the junior level just last year.

If rookie defensemen are supposed to hit a wall, Ekblad hasn’t.

And with just two games left in his season, it’s safe to say he won’t.

The Professional Hockey Writers’ Association will vote on the Calder Trophy among other awards next week with the results announced in June at the NHL Awards Show in Las Vegas.

“It’s out of sight and out of mind for me right now,’’ Ekblad said. “If they’re going to pick me, they would have picked me already and not depend on the last two games. The last two games don’t define a season. I’m just trying to finish and win games with the Florida Panthers. That’s what everyone should be focused on right now.’’

END IS NEAR

The Panthers have just two regular-season games left and will likely hold their final open workout at the Coral Springs IceDen on Tuesday at 11 a.m. Florida is scheduled to hold its final two practices (Wednesday and Friday) at the BB&T Center.

The Montreal Canadiens are scheduled to take the ice in Coral Springs at 9:30 on Tuesday morning.

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