How Aaron Ekblad Is Making His Strongest Norris Trophy Case Yet

It’s already been a wild ride for 25-year-old Aaron Ekblad.

Since the Florida Panthers selected him first overall in 2014, he’s gone from an ascending star to an injury-riddled what-if and back again.

He entered the 2021-22 campaign in a particularly favorable situation. Joel Quenneville was the best head coach he’d ever played for and he was surrounded by the most talented roster he’d ever been a part of. Sam Bennett solidified the center position at the 2020-21 trade deadline. Florida then acquired savvy forward Sam Reinhart in the offseason. Highly touted prospect Anton Lundell was set to debut in the NHL. The emergence of Gustav Forsling deepened the blue line. This felt like Ekblad’s time to shine.

After a perfect 7-0-0 start during which Florida was outscoring teams by more than two-and-a-half goals per game, Quenneville promptly resigned in the wake of the Kyle Beach scandal. Andrew Brunette took over as the interim bench boss and there was legitimate concern over whether this sea change would derail the Panthers’ campaign.

Florida’s 8-4-3 record since the bombshell isn’t quite as sparkling, but it’s allowed the team to maintain its hold of the top spot in the Atlantic Division as the players and coaches try to find their rhythm.

Ekblad’s performance on the back end has proven essential to the Panthers’ action-packed approach. He’s posted 20 points in 22 games and is terrorizing opponents with his size, strength and shot. While he carries the reputation of a two-way workhorse, he’s really an offensive defenseman at heart, cruising below the hash marks to offer teammates different targets and keep defenses guessing.

This isn’t to suggest he can’t contain puck-carriers. His rangy frame and active stick are valuable assets to deploy in the defensive zone:

However, he’s by and large an…average defender. He gets caught reaching for pucks instead of moving his feet and he can be slow to identify the biggest threats in any given scenario, often chasing the wrong mark and thus hanging his teammates out to dry. Let’s just say MacKenzie Weegar has a healthy number of fires to put out.

Thankfully, Ekblad’s impact on offense far outweighs his slip-ups on defense.

He’s currently fifth in scoring among NHL blueliners and Florida piles on both pressure and production at a tremendous rate during his 5-on-5 shifts. When he’s on the ice, the Panthers register 2.74 expected goals (2nd among defensemen with 350+ minutes played) and 4.0 actual goals per 60 minutes (5th). All told, they own 56.8% of the scoring chances, 54.7% of the high-danger chances, 56.3% of the expected goals and 70.3% of the actual goals when he’s out there.

From an offensive standpoint, Ekblad is best known for his shot. He does indeed possess a cannon from the point. More importantly, he has a knack for firing his bids through traffic, evading the first wave of blockers and giving his teammates a chance to screen, deflect or clean them up. He’s equally comfortable leaning into lasers or taking some steam off his attempts to ensure that they find their way to the goaltender.

Watch how much his shot can trouble opponents:

It’s worth noting that he and the Panthers are converting at a tick higher than usual during his shifts. But he’s also setting career highs in chances, high-danger opportunities and expected goals, so greater output should follow.

This production also appears sustainable because of where he’s generating it from. Unlike most offensive blueliners, he doesn’t require the puck on his stick for extended stretches. He doesn’t fly through the neutral zone like Cale Makar or cleverly dissect the opposition like Adam Fox. He doesn’t control the game. He unhinges it with a shocking level of off-puck aggressiveness. Ekblad frequently barrels into the slot and forces defenses into net-front scrambles.

Adding to the madness is his sense of timing. Blueliners typically apply offensive pressure at predictable moments. They’ll charge to the backdoor once they have forward support or creep in once the opposition is tired following a long shift in its zone.

Ekblad? He has the green light to just dive in when it strikes his fancy:

Defenses—and sometimes even his own teammates—don’t know when he’s headed downhill, so they obviously aren’t prepared when he does sink down. Opposing wingers can’t secure inside position on him. Blueliners must either vacate their post to claim him or risk leaving a 6’4”, 215-pound behemoth uncovered in the heart of the defense. His presence in the slot creates total mayhem and stirs up premium looks.

Granted, every dash forward is scary for both parties. This high-wire act can easily lead to odd-man rushes against. However, the uptempo Panthers want an agent of chaos. He’s their X-factor. The ace up their sleeve. Trading chances doesn’t feel like such a 50/50 proposition when they can unleash this mountain of a man on the opposition.

Teams can’t wrap their head around this size and daredevilry bearing down on them from the blue line:

2021-22 has been…turbulent for the Panthers. There was a massive pivot behind the bench and several key injuries (Aleksander Barkov, Anthony Duclair, Mason Marchment, Markus Nutivaara, Forsling) have hamstrung the coaching staff. That hasn’t fazed Ekblad, though. Per 60 minutes, he ranks third among defensemen in shots, fourth in rebounds created, fourth in high-danger chances, seventh in expected goals and second in actual goals. He’s a menace from any distance.

Florida’s riverboat gambler is thriving amid the muss, piling up points, powering one of the fiercest squads in the NHL and thus presenting his strongest Norris Trophy case yet.

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