Aaron Ekblad: “I want to be on that opening night roster”

As Aaron Ekblad settles into life in South Florida for his big push towards making the Panthers’ roster as an 18-year-old, it should be apparent to Panthers fans that this will be the first time that Ekblad has faced any sort of adversity as a hockey player. This isn’t to say that you can expect any sort of Lindrosian behavior from the Belle River, Ontario native; the honor roll student is touted for his complete game as a defenseman, more than justifying the fact that he is just one of four players to date to have been granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada.

What strikes you immediately (besides his model-esque appearance) is Ekblad’s ability to walk a tightrope between confidence and meekness. When asked if he had spoken with veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell–a signing I have lauded as a great move by Dale Tallon, not just for the development of Ekblad, but for the progression of the defensive corps as a whole–he said that it “…would be awesome to meet Willie Mitchell,” as if he were hoping the veteran d-man would stop by his locker to extol the virtues of using longer sticks in the NHL.

His performance–to date–is anything but vague. What excited Hockey Canada about the 15-year-old has only matured as he’s grown. Now, the 6’3 216 lbs. blue liner is known for his all-around game, excelling just as much on special teams as he does at even strength. His one-timer is considered lethal, and while he doesn’t do it very often, he’s more than willing to drop the gloves to prove a point. Some have compared his style of play to legendary defenseman Denis Potvin, a favorable comparison that Ekblad takes with a grain of salt. “All comparisons are good, especially to guys who have had storied careers,” Ekblad said, while adding “I want to pave my own path in the NHL.”

With the uncertainty as to what his role will be with the organization next year, Ekblad has a few things going in his favor. For one, the Panthers have only four defensemen locked in as starters (at this point): Erik Gudbranson, Brian Campbell, Willie Mitchell, and Dmitry Kulikov. Another is that he is right-handed, something only one of the four assumed starters (Gudbranson) can boast. Although he’s 18, his two-way game and size should translate well to the NHL, something that naturally keeps 18-year-olds in junior hockey for at least another year or two.

“I want to be on that opening night roster,” Ekblad said. “I want to be given that opportunity and I think if I do, I’ll be able to run with it.”

Along with the natural spark that adding an 18-year-old, former number one overall pick to the fold, is the Panthers much publicized power play woes. Ekblad’s play could easily bolster a unit that shot a comically low 7.6%, while serving to boost the play of Brian Campbell, who could settle into the power play quarterback role, setting up Ekblad’s big one timer.

Aside from Ekblad and Alex Petrovic, who is entering the last year of his entry-level deal, the Panthers have Dylan Olsen and Colby Robak, who would have to clear waivers in order to be sent to the AHL. Additionally, Shane O’Brien was invited to camp, and Greg Zanon was signed to a one year, two-way contract.

Like Vincent Trocheck, it’s the options the Panthers have in Ekblad, and that they can send him back to his junior team, that are stacked against him. With that in mind, Ekblad obviously has nothing else to learn in the OHL, as his 23 goals and 30 assists in 58 games would suggest.

If all Ekblad wants is to clear his own path in the NHL, his route thus far is a pretty good start.

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Vincent Trocheck: Biding his time

Reading about the 2013 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships held in Ufa, Russia, you’ll see that the tournament was dominated by the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (EDM; 4G-11A-15P.), Markus Granlund (CGY; 5G-7A-12P), Johnny Gaudreau (CGY; 7G-2A-9P), and Jonathan Huberdeau (FLA; 3G-6A-9P), all of whom played between six and seven games.

You’ll see that Anaheim’s John Gibson, he of the now-famous Darryl Sutter-ism that had at least a few people thinking, “was he serious?”, completely dominated the tournament, posting a remarkable .955 save percentage, a full 0.5% more than the next goalie, Tampa Bay Lightning super-prospect Andrey Vasilevski. And you’ll even see the leadership on the gold medal winning team, led by future first rounder’s Seth Jones (NSH), Jacob Trouba (WPG), Connor Murphy (ARZ), and J.T. Miller (NYR).

What you won’t see–unless you look particularly close–is one Vincent Trocheck. Despite not garnering the clout that his peers did in the tournament, Trocheck put up a more-than respectable six points (3G-3A-6P) in seven games, including an empty net goal and an assist in the gold medal game. While Trocheck lacked the size and accolades of his peers, it was readily apparent–a year-and-a-half later–that Trocheck used the experience in Ufa as a launching pad for his career.

After the Pittsburgh, PA native returned from Russia, he was traded from the Saginaw Spirit to the Plymouth Whalers, where he went on to score 26 goals to go along with 33 assists in 28 games. He finished the season by leading the OHL in points with 109 total (50G-59A-109P).

As Trocheck did with the World Juniors, he used the culmination of his amateur career as a stepping stone into the pros. Slated to play the season in San Antonio with the Rampage, Trocheck did nothing but impress, leading the team with 42 points (12G-26A) in 55 games. What sets Trocheck apart from his peers is his instincts: he uses tremendous hockey IQ and vision to hit the open man, while his agility makes up for his lack of top-end speed, allowing him to set-up in the right place at the right time.

What really made Trocheck’s first season as a professional stand out was the way that he played following the trade of Marcel Goc. Eliminated from playoff contention, the Panthers brought Trocheck up from the minors. In his 20 game audition, Trocheck shined, scoring five goals to go with his three assists, while leading the Panther forwards with 18:53 of ice time per game.

Heading into his second professional season, Trocheck puts the Panthers in an intriguing situation. Combining his roster friendly two-way contract leaving him waiver ineligible, the signing of veteran centers Dave Bolland and Derek MacKenzie, and the NHL experience of Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, and Drew Shore, Trocheck looks likely to bounce back and forth between San Antonio and Sunrise.

Moving forward, Trocheck’s versatility will be key; while conventional scouting wisdom might declare Trocheck NHL ready, the logjam at center remains apparent. Being able to play on the wing, and in different roles–whether that be on an energy line, on special teams, or just five-on-five–aren’t so much bonuses anymore, but rather necessities needed to crack an NHL roster.

Coming off his fourth development camp, Trocheck established himself as the clear-cut leader amongst those in attendance, something management was clearly looking for out of the 21-year-old. Since before he was drafted 64th overall in 2011, Trocheck was championed for having IT, a sports terminology that, in essence, means he’s not big enough and not strong enough, but does the little things that are required out of a truly good player. His hockey IQ, his agility, and his knack for setting-up teammates to score give him the edge over the streaky forward and the puck moving defenseman.

Regardless of when it happens, Vincent Trocheck will force himself into the Florida Panthers lineup. Maybe he can use his fourth and final rookie camp as a springboard into his second professional season.

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