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Panthers’ Ekblad participates in the Norris Trophy early conversation

The 2021/22 season starts particularly well for the Florida Panthers. The team has 19 out of 20 possible points and has yet to lose in the regulations. Despite the legal loss of head coach Joel Quenneville in the wake of the sexual assault scandal involving the Chicago Blackhawks, the team continued to win hockey games. One of the main reasons the Panthers are so successful is their now Norris Trophy defender Aaron Ekblad.

A top 5 NHL defender

Ekblad has always been able to collect points and especially to score goals. The shoot-first defender has topped 10 goals in six of his seven NHL seasons, despite only playing 35 games in one of those seasons. In fact, prior to a gruesome leg injury that ended his 2020-21 season, Ekblad was cruising a regular 82-game season at a pace of 25 goals, 50 points. It’s worth noting that last season’s schedule only featured seven different opponents, but that shouldn’t detract from his dominance.

This season Ekblad has picked up where he left off. In his first 10 games, he’s accumulated four goals and six assists for a point-per-game pace. This production sees him bound Fourth in the NHL on points among defenders. His plus-10 rating is third-best in the league with his teammate and defensive partner MacKenzie Weegar. He has to collect a small penalty this season and has an average of over 25 minutes of ice time per game, which is sixth place in the league. In short, Ekblad is quickly becoming both an offensive advantage and a reliable defensive option.

Establishment of the slap shot

A deeper look illustrates two reasons why Ekblad has an increased workload and more success. First and foremost, its shot volume has increased significantly. In both the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, he averaged exactly 2.19 shots per game. Last season that number rose to 2.89 shots per game and in the first 10 games of this campaign he has recorded an impressive 3.3 shots per game.

Aaron Ekblad takes a slap shot of which he does a lot more in the 2021-22 campaign.
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Part of the increased offensive performance comes from his role as the lone defender and quarterback of the first power play unit, which includes Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Sam Bennett and Sam Reinhart. Looking at the nature of the shots, Ekblad is using his slap shot more than ever, with 18 of his 33 shot attempts being made through this option. His dependence on the slap shot means that he is the league lead among NHL defenders in slap shots and goals scored with the clapper. Ekblad finds himself more open due to the impressive 5-on-5 game of the Panthers and uses his booming shot on the power play for the first time in his career. The shooting opportunities lead to points and that leads to serious consideration, albeit early, for some of the league’s top honors.

Early Reflections on the Norris Trophy

Ekblad’s production got him in early conversation for the Norris Trophy, which is awarded to the best defender in the NHL. Among the NHL defenders, he leads them on goals, in the top 5 in points and plus / minus, and in the top 10 in both on the ice per game and in shots. His 5v5 goals percentage, essentially the rate at which goals are scored for his team compared to him on the ice, is 68.4 percent. That’s good for the ninth-best defender, who averages over 17 minutes of 5v5 ice time per game.

Of course, if he can keep up this production, he’ll be in talks for the Norris Trophy at the end of the season. It’s in the top 10, if not higher, in futures markets across the league, and it’s in an impressive 99 percent of the Yahoo! Fantasy hockey leagues.

2014 NHL Draft Top Blueliner Aaron EkbladAaron Ekblad in his pre-NHL role as captain of the Barrie Colts of the OHL (Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

The Panthers designed Ekblad in 2014 as the first in the overall standings with this type of production in mind. Not only did they draft the defender, who was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League’s draft when he was only 15, with one special exception, they also doubled him up by signing him to an eight-year contract for the maximum league. This $ 7.5 million per year deal includes a no-movement clause for the next four seasons until it becomes an unrestricted free agent in the 2025 off-season. Needless to say, Ekblad is quickly becoming the defensive cornerstone the Panthers have always hoped for him.

Make Team Canada

Not only does Ekblad get involved early in Norris Trophy talks, the Windsor, Ontario native also cemented his position as one of Team Canada’s likely Olympic defenders. Depending on the projection, many had him either as the seventh defender in the squad or as part of the third defensive pairing.

At the Olympic tournament, the entire squad (excluding the taxi squad) dresses for each game, which means that Ekblad would definitely see Ice Age as long as he makes it on the list. His power play expertise could even make him the second unit behind Cale Makar and / or Dougie Hamilton as quarterback. Either way, playing 5v5 also requires serious consideration. Given his blustery start, along with a serious injury to Drew Doughty and an average start to the season from roster Morgan Rielly, Ekblad looks poised to secure a spot on the coveted Olympic list.

A long way to go

Of course, the Panthers and Ekblad only have 10 games behind them. There is plenty of time to turn things around or, more optimistically, to continue its breakneck pace at the start of the season. After all, constancy in the largest ice hockey league in the world is one of the most difficult things to achieve. However, the season for the Panthers is well over 10. Although it is early, Ekblad has thrown his name among the best in the league. Whether that leads to a division title, a deep playoff run, a nomination for the Norris Trophy, an Olympic squad spot, or none of the above remains to be seen.

Originally from Oro-Medonte, Ontario, north of Toronto, Mitch Davidson has followed hockey, the business of the NHL and the Florida Panthers for more than two decades. In his career, Mitch is a full-time writer having served as the executive director of a public policy think tank, regular public opinion columnist, and after six years as a senior fellow as a global fellow at the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in provincial politics.

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