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Prospect Need To Know: Virtanen, Ekblad bring grit to Canada

Aaron Ekblad was granted early acceptance into the OHL as an exceptional player. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

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Aaron Ekblad was granted early acceptance into the OHL as an exceptional player. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

Two of Canada's top prospects for the 2014 draft were going at it like rabid dogs, then found themselves as teammates hours later. If Canada is going to once again win gold at the under-18 Ivan Hlinka tournament in Europe, Calgary's Jake Virtanen and Barrie's Aaron Ekblad will be key.

Virtanen is a highly skilled center who plays the game with an edge, while Ekblad is a towering two-way defenseman. Both were picked first overall in their respective junior leagues and both will be top-10, if not top-5 in the NHL draft. But after a camp finale where their rivalry featured boarding, cross-checking, a near scrap and a spate of minor penalties, the competitors are now allies.

“Neither of us worry about it of course,” Ekblad said. “We're happy being on the same team knowing we're both going to give it our all.”

For Ekblad, this was a good showing. He's already proven to be adept as both a defensive defenseman and an offensive threat with the Colts, but a nasty streak would complete the package.

“A few people have told me it's important to show you're not going to take crap from anyone and that's how I feel out there,” he said. “I'll be able to do what I need to do to win hockey games and protect my teammates.”

Since he was granted exceptional status to join the Ontario League a year early, Ekblad would seem to be a good candidate to wear a letter at the Ivan Hlinka. And whether he actually gets the designation, the big blueliner plans to do his part in the dressing room when it comes to leadership.

“I'm going into my third year of junior and I picked up a lot of experience on two different playoff runs,” Ekblad said. “I learned from a lot of great captains and players on that Barrie team and hopefully I can bring that over here.”

There were a lot of excellent candidates for this year's squad, but in the end there were surprising omissions as well. Highly regarded blueliners such as Jacob Middleton and Brycen Martin were cut, as was sturdy forward Jaden Lindo and big left winger Brendan Perlini.

“We're going on the big ice over there and speed is the big thing for us,” said coach Dale Hunter. “Speed and skill and definitely will. We have a fast team. We're going to roll the lines and keep coming in waves.”

Two players who seemed to have cemented their spots based on the last scrimmage game were center Alexis Pepin and defenseman Joe Hicketts. Pepin is a big boy at 6-foot-2, 238 pounds, while Hicketts was the smallest at camp, measuring in at 5-foot-7 (but a solid 181 pounds). Pepin was put on a top line with fellow Quebec Leaguer Daniel Audette and highly regarded Moose Jaw pivot Brayden Point, while Hicketts partnered up with Ekblad on the blueline.

“You put kids in all different situations to be fair and give them a chance to make it or break it,” Hunter said. “That's why they're still here, they did a good job.”

Pepin is a smooth skater for his size, though he had put on at least 30 pounds from his listed weight during the QMJHL season.

“I need to get my fat percentage a little down,” he said. “But I built up muscle this summer in my legs for more power as a skater. I need to bring it down maybe five pounds and I'll be alright.”

Coach Hunter was satisfied, noting that all the cardio in camp will help players such as Pepin and defender Carl Neill, who was also a lot bulkier than expected, get into fighting form. But still, Pepin, the young power forward for the Charlottetown Islanders knew he was given a great opportunity at the last camp game and took advantage.

“Obviously I needed to upgrade my offensive game and our line produced,” Pepin said. “I had to show off my physical side to protect those guys because they are smaller players (Audette and Point are both under 5-foot-9). I had to step up.”

Hicketts may be small, but the Victoria Royals rear-guard is fierce and playing with Ekblad in the final tune up allowed him to show off his skating prowess.

“It's nice having someone you know will be there and back you up,” Hicketts said. “I like to jump into the play a bit, so having that defensive defenseman there was nice. I can see things develop and make the right read, whether it's a breakout pass or on the power play, so that's one of the strongest parts of my game.”

Goaltenders Julio Billia and Mason McDonald both come from the QMJHL and Hunter said he hasn't chosen a starter yet. They'll split duty in an exhibition game against Slovakia and from there the Canadians will once again go for gold.

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