(PHILADELPHIA) — Aaron Ekblad felt confident at No. 1, ready to move from the top of the draft straight to the NHL.
“I can step into the NHL next year,” he said.
The Florida Panthers sure hope he’ll ready in a hurry to become part of a promising nucleus they expect to lead them back to the playoffs.
Without a clear No. 1 on the board, general manager Dale Tallon was open to trading the pick on Friday night. In the end, he decided to take the 18-year-old from Belle River, Ontario, with the first selection at the Wells Fargo Center.
Ekblad, a 6-foot-4 and 214-pound defenseman who played for Barrie in the Ontario Hockey League, is the first blueliner to go No. 1 since St. Louis took Erik Johnson in 2006.
“That is the burden of expectation. I chase it,” Ekblad said. “I want that burden of expectation. I want that feel for motivation and I want to succeed under that.”
The NHL will finish the draft with rounds two through seven on Saturday.
The Panthers had a top-three pick in the NHL draft for the fourth time in the past five years. The first three — defenseman Erik Gudbranson (in 2010), wing Jonathan Huberdeau (2011) and center Aleksander Barkov (2013) — all played significant roles last season. Florida also won the draft lottery in 2002 and 2003, but traded away those picks.
“I’m going to be learning from some great players, some young guys who have just stepped in, some older players who have had storied careers,” Ekblad said.
Ekblad was the OHL’s most outstanding defenseman last season, ranking first among defensemen with 23 goals and tying for fifth with 53 points. He also served as Barrie’s captain.
The Sabres selected center Sam Reinhart with the second overall pick. The Edmonton Oilers selected center Leon Draisaitl at No. 3, Calgary took center Sam Bennett fourth and the New York Islanders picked forward Michael Dal Colle fifth. Vancouver selected forward Jake Virtanen with the sixth pick, Carolina took defenseman Haydn Fleury seventh, Toronto selected forward William Nylander eighth, Winnipeg picked forward Nickolaj Ehlers ninth and Anaheim completed the top 10 with forward Nick Ritchie.