This past year was not a good one for the Panthers. The general consensus review of the team was poor defensive play and worse goaltending. A quick review of the team stats reveals that every Panther had a negative +/-, except three. Dryden Hunt ended at even, however he only played in 31 games. Nick Bjugstad ended up +2 with the Cats over 32 games. And then there is Aaron Ekblad at +1 over all 82 games. It is worth mentioning that Aaron led all Panther skaters with a total of 1,939 minutes, averaging over 23 minutes of ice time per game. Possibly the most telling stat is the way that he was deployed. Zone starts is a measure of where a player typically starts his shift and is noted as a percentage. Aaron began his shifts in the defensive zone 52.9% of the time. This means he was relied upon as a defensive defenseman. Typically, one would see a higher negative in plus minus for players starting in the defensive zone on a team with poor goal tending (see Yandle: 50.2% d-zone start and -17, and Matheson: 52.8% d-zone start and -24). These two stats combined show that Ekblad contributed more than the rest of the Panther D-men on the defensive side of play. Aaron finished the season with 13 goals and 24 assists for 37 points, which is slightly higher than is average of 34.2 points over the five years.
Analysis of hockey must look beyond the individual stats and is more about comparison with certain benchmarks. Players can be compared to their previous years, they can be compared to their teammates, and they can be compared to players from other teams. The ultimate comparison is to the players from the team that wins it all. Colton Parayko (St. Louis) played 80 games, logged 22:47 average time on ice, added 28 points (10G, 18A), started 53.6% in the defensive zone, and ended up with a +20 plus/minus. He also ended up with his name etched on Lord Stanley’s Cup. In comparison, Parayko and Ekblad were deployed in a very similar manner as defensive d-men and ended up with very similar stats. What’s the difference you ask? Goaltending and defensive zone support by the forwards. Relatively speaking and based on the statistics Ekblad had a decent year.
The Good: Ekblad plays a smart game. He realizes his shortcomings and tends to make the smart or safe play. He is a good passer and does well with zone exit passing. He does a good job of taking advantage of opportunities. In several games this past year, Aaron pinched in from the point to add goal scoring in much needed instances.
The Bad: Aaron was not blessed with the best transition skating ability. He is very slow in the backwards skating position and is not quick in the turn from forward skating to backwards. The result is he often gets beaten badly by forechecking opposing forwards. And he is just plain and simply soft. A defensive d-man has to play with grit at times and he just does not seem to possess a nasty streak. Case in point was the Max Domi situation in a pre-season game in Montreal. Domi sucker punches Eklad and Aaron didn’t know exactly what to do. Maybe it just stunned him, who knows. But when Domi makes an appearance in Florida, he has to take some punishment. Ekblad does nothing. Panthers do nothing. Soft. S-O-F-T. Unfortunately, soft is not something that can be coached. You either have it or you don’t.
Final Grade: B
Based on the total ineptitude of the team defense and horrible goal tending, I believe Ekblad stood out. His cerebral defensive play and situational awareness helped keep him at the top of the defensive pairings. His off-season training should be a heavy dose of skating, skating, and after that skating. He must solve his poor performance in defensive skating and quit becoming a pylon on the back check. The league gets younger and faster each year, and he needs to step up, well…step back, so to speak. We have him locked down at $7.5 annual average for five more years. It takes several years for defensemen to come into their own in the NHL and they are typically around 23-24 when they start. Aaron started with the big club at 18 and is just now 25. I look forward to many more years of a maturing and seasoning Aaron Ekblad, but I would like to hear more growl and less purr from our top line D Cat.