After winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year as an 18-year-old in the 2014-15 NHL season, Aaron Ekblad followed it up with another solid campaign in the 2015-16 season.
This summer, the Panthers rewarded him with a contract which will pay him $60 million over eight years, beginning next season when his entry level contract expires. As a 20-year-old former first overall pick who looked to be the present and the future of the Panthers, it made sense. It seemed like they may be jumping the gun and maybe payed him a little more than they needed to, but nothing too egregious.
Twenty-six games into the 2016-17 campaign, though, Ekblad has fallen off a cliff. He currently boasts a -6.12 Rel.CF%, mostly due to the fact he is bleeding shots as if he’s turned into Dan Girardi. His 11.26 Rel.CA60 is eye-opening, to say the least, and his -2.07 Rel.CF60 suggests he isn’t driving offence either. Ekblad also leads the team in 5v5 TOI with just under 440 minutes played, so the sample is large enough that his performance is concerning. So, what on Earth is wrong with Aaron Ekblad?
Simply put, he really misses Brian Campbell. In Ekblad’s rookie season, he was chained to Campbell’s hip and the results were great. In the brief time he spent with Willie Mitchel, the results were not so great.
I’m willing to give Ekblad the benefit of the doubt here for a few obvious reasons.
- Campbell is very good and Mitchell is very bad.
- Small sample size with Mitchell.
- Ekblad was 18 during this season.
Ekblad won the Calder during this season, but it was a little unclear how much Campbell had to do with that due to Ekblad playing almost exclusively with him.
Last season, however, was a different story. Ekblad played more minutes without Campbell than with him and the results speak for themselves.
Once again, when Ekblad and Campbell were on the ice together, the Panthers dominated. When Ekblad was on the ice without Campbell, things didn’t go as well. The only Panthers pairing to get beat up worse than Ekblad-Kampfer was Gudbransson-Mitchell, which makes sense. Gudbransson and Mitchell are both bad. Kampfer and Kulikov are no Norris Trophy candidates themselves, but they were better as a pairing than either of them were when paired up with Ekblad.
So, a summary of Ekblad’s first two seasons:
With Campbell = very good.
Without Campbell = not good.
On July 1st, the same day Ekblad signed his extension, Campbell signed a one year contract with the Blackhawks for $1.5 million. This was a) a total steal for the Blackhawks and b) a problem for the Panthers and Ekblad.
The Panthers seemed to shore this issue up by signing Yandle and Demers while making a savvy Kulikov for Mark Pysyk trade, but over a quarter of the way through the season, it’s been a train wreck for Ekblad.
The Panthers have already given Ekblad significant time with four good partners, all to no avail. The team has dominated the headlines of late for other reasons of late, but this is definitely something worth tracking. Ekblad is still only a 20-year-old defenceman, but it will be interesting to see if he can right the ship any time soon.
The Panthers need to find Ekblad’s new Campbell and I’m sure General Manager turned Head Coach Tom Rowe has this at the top of his priority list.
*all stats via corsica.hockey and are score, zone and venue adjusted.