Teenager Aaron Ekblad didn’t truly show his age to landlord/teammate Willie Mitchell and his wife Megan until his high school friends showed up at their shared Fort Lauderdale home.
“His buddies come down, and we’re like, ‘Oh, right. He’s 18.’ They are kids. He’s a man,’” Mitchell laughed during a recent road trip to Toronto. “He probably hit puberty at six.”
So where was Mitchell at Ekblad’s age?
“I was in a billet’s house eating Pringles weighing 230 pounds.”
Fast-tracker Ekblad — six-foot-four, 216 pounds for those scoring at home — is enjoying a season a man-child can only dream about.
Just how good is the “man?”
So good in these eyes, he deserves to become the first 19-year-old defenceman to win the Calder Trophy in 18 years, and thus join Bryan Berard, Ray Bourque, Bobby Orr and Denis Potvin as the only teenage D-men in NHL history to receive the trophy.
“He doesn’t stand out in any particular way. He’s fast, he’s strong, he shoots the puck well, so he does all of those things. But what sets him apart is his mind, the way he thinks the game,” says Potvin, a Hall of Famer and colour commentator on Panthers broadcasts.
That Ekblad has just missed one NHL game this season is incredibly rare for a blueliner who only turned 19 in February, Potvin adds.
“His poise has been terrific. He’s now the point man on the power play; they’re using four forwards. I think it’s the way he thinks the game that has made him superior at that age.”
Averaging 22:07 of ice time per game, the 2014 No. 1 overall pick has skated more than any teammate besides partner Brian Campbell and more than any NHL rookie. (Dallas’s John Klingberg is only first-year defender in Ekblad’s stratosphere, averaging 21:41 over 57 games.)
“It feels like he’s been in the league a long time,” says Roberto Luongo. “He’s got a lot of composure and poise. He’s a special talent out there.”
The Windsor, Ont., native leads all rookie defenceman in goals (11) and ranks high among rookie leaders in game-winning goals (four), plus/minus (plus-8) and points (35).
“I didn’t expect to put up points like this, but it’s a testament to my team. The speed, the skill, the physicality is all kinda a step up,” explains Ekblad, who has a nifty ability to find shooting lanes while on the man-advantage. “I get a lot of blocked shots, but I just try to get by the first guy and hope for the best.”
Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau, Nashville’s Filip Forsberg, Ottawa’s Mike Hoffman and the Islanders’ Anders Lee have all passed the 20-goal mark, making for a deep class of freshman forwards. They deserve high-fives and a mention, but not the hardware, and hopefully writers enchanted by point totals alone will split the vote.
Ekblad plays more minutes for a weaker team at a more important position than all of them. Plus, he’s younger.
“You’d never guess he’s 19 years old. The confidence is there, the skill is there… he’s just going to keep getting better. He’s far ahead from where I started,” says Florida centre Nick Bjugstad.
“He made a play to me against Montreal. I thought he was just going to dump it in—everybody thought he was going to dump it in—and [P.K.] Subban was reading it like it was going into the corner. Then he somehow whipped it around to me. I don’t know how he did it.
“And I had a breakaway from there in the last couple minutes of the game, and we ended up tying it. Just plays like that. The poise he has with the puck. He’s a big-time player.”
Watch the play:
It’s not only the offence he creates. Ekblad easily leads all Florida blueliners in the possession indicators Fenwick (133) and Corsi (201). Potvin says he’s been most blown away by the plays he makes in his own end.
“You don’t give an 18-year-old coming out of junior the accolade that he’s going to be good defensively,” Potvin says, “and he’s made some stick plays – two-on-ones, three-on-ones that he handled all by himself – that were very impressive.”
It’s the lack of mistakes that cause Mitchell to shake his head.
“He’s playing 23 minutes a night, playing against top lines, and we’re in the [playoff] mix. We wouldn’t be where we are without him,” Mitchell says.
“I hate to say it: He gets lost down in Florida. I’m sure I’m biased because he does live with us, but I’m sure if you asked peers around the league, they’d say he’s the rookie of the year. It’s the hardest position to break into in the NHL.”
Off ice, captain Mitchell says there’s only one house rule he enforces with his superstar tenant.
“Don’t drink and drive,” Ekblad says, overhearing Mitchell wax on about his protege.
“It’s my obligation to say that because he’s under my roof. If he wants a glass a wine when we go out for dinner, fine. You treat people like they are—he’s a man, right?” Mitchell explains. “It’s a liability on me, but more than that, I care about the guy.”
(By the way, make sure to read Katie Baker’s story on the roomies.)
Ekblad credits Mitchell with helping him from everything from tax write-offs to learning the ins and outs of purchasing real estate.
“It’s been fun y’know? Helped him write his first cheque. I liked his attitude early,” says Mitchell. “He was like, ‘Man, these agents. What a waste they are!’
The funny thing is, that agent is Orr — whose 41 points as a rookie defenceman is still within reach for Ekblad.
Ekblad speaks highly of fellow Calder candidates Forsberg and Gaudreau, whom he met at All-Star Weekend, but admits winning the trophy would mean plenty.
“I’ve always looked up to people who’ve accomplished that,” he says, before getting professional. “But in the end it’s about winning games with the Florida Panthers and making the playoffs.”
Handsome, polite and talented. What’s the catch here?
Asked for a weakness in the teen’s armour, Potvin says there is only one area for Ekblad to grow.
“Listen,” the four-time champion says. “You’re not born with experience. That’s really the only place you’re going to improve on. It gets scary when you think how much better he can be.”