Is Aaron Ekblad the next Nicklas Lidstrom?

Ken Campbell
Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Funny how Aaron Ekblad looks neither particularly dangerous nor lonely the afternoon before the 2014 draft. He’s sitting in his designated spot at the National Constitution Center, wearing an NHL-issued golf shirt, khakis and casual footwear (no socks), swatting aside questions with the same ease he does 16-year-old lightweights in the Ontario League. His hair has a blond streak and he’s well tanned, the result of having a little downtime after the season to spend on his family’s new Sea-Doo 21-foot Challenger boat on Lake St. Clair near Windsor. There’s a certain irony that Ekblad, the day before he’ll be consigned to an NHL team over which he has absolutely no choice, is doing this in the same city where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed.

Ekblad’s emancipation from junior hockey, though, is almost complete. He’ll soon be a part of the Barrie Colts alumni. At 6-foot-4 with a cannon from the blueline, NHL hockey sense and the makeup to log big-time minutes, he’ll be playing in the best league in the world this coming season. On this afternoon, the only question is where. The Florida Panthers are dangling the first-overall pick and they’re getting some action, particularly from the Flyers, who want to make a splash in front of their fans. They also want the player who’s the most NHL-ready among all the prospects. “He’s a man,” says Panthers GM Dale Tallon, who stays up all night stewing over trade offers before deciding to take Ekblad. “He’s 18 going on 30.”
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THN’s 2014-15 NHL season preview: Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

2013-14 record: 29-45-8

Acquisitions: Greg Zanon, Willie Mitchell, Al Montoya, Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen, Shawn Thornton, Derek MacKenzie

Departures: Peter Mueller, Scott Clemmensen, Tom Gilbert, Jesse Winchester, Matt Gilroy

Top five fantasy players: Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov, Jussi Jokinen, Brian Campbell, Jonathan Huberdeau

Boom, Bust and Bottom Line: The best, worst and most likely scenario
Boom: The Panthers will have a full season with Roberto Luongo as their starter and Al Montoya as their backup, which alone will give them a huge boost. Last season’s combination of Tim Thomas, Scott Clemmensen and Jacob Markstrom was awful and cost the Panthers plenty of games and goals against. Read more

Hey NHL – let’s treat women as equals and ice the ice girls

Adam Proteau
Colorado Avalanche Ice Girls (Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The hockey world has made great leaps and bounds in social awareness issues in recent years: the anti-homophobia You Can Play Project was embraced by players and teams, and racist epithets hurled at certain players are met with increasing disgust from the majority of fans. But there are still some areas in which the sport – and in particular, the NHL – can do better. One of them is in eradicating the misogyny, explicit and casual, that exists in the sport.

And one of the easiest places to start is by getting rid of half-dressed ice girls.

This issue isn’t about the cheerleaders themselves. It’s about what we ask them to do under the guise of “entertainment.” We ask them work for next to no money in frigid arenas with their shoulders, midsection and/or legs exposed. We ask them to objectify themselves – to be ogled and leered at by strangers – and never stop smiling. We ask them to reduce their contributions so that they’re little more than eye candy.

And really, why? What purpose does it serve? Nobody has demonstrated teams that employ ice girls sell more tickets than teams that don’t. Nobody leaves a game and says, “The best part of the night didn’t have anything to do with the action on the ice – it was when that cheerleader jumped up and down in co-ordination with other cheerleaders and said something positive about the team!”

More importantly, let’s look at what the presence of ice girls does to the paying female customer. Read more

Anaheim Ducks will win the Stanley Cup…in our alternate predictions

duckshappy

The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings are, in the opinion of the deep thinkers at The Hockey News, the class of the NHL. Chicago is our pick to win the Cup, while the defending champs have, by far, the best chance of preventing that from happening.

It’s a virtual two-horse race with the co-favorites, having remarkably similar pedigrees.

But what if…we’re wrong? Unlikely, we realize, but not impossible. If both clubs get eliminated from contention, which dark horse is best positioned to come from the outside and bask in the winner’s circle?

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Top 10 NHL personalities

Roberto Luongo (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

More than ever, the professional sports world focuses on personality to help sell their products. In the hockey business, that’s been tougher to do thanks to a culture that discourages individualism in the name of team success. But the NHL still has a number of vibrant personas who’ll be worth keeping an eye (and an ear) on in 2014-15. Here are the top 10 hockey personalities this season:

10. Mike Cammalleri, New Jersey Devils. The veteran winger has filled notepads and digital recorders all across North America because he’s an intelligent guy with a healthy sense of humor and good head on his shoulders, and he understands that having opinions and showing the public he’s more than a hockey automaton won’t affect his on-ice performance. Here he is on the Canadian TV comedy series “Mr. D.”:

Cammalleri deserves kudos for putting himself out there. That said, let’s have a moment of silence for that charm now that he’s signed on with the Devils, who are the Bermuda Triangle of personality.

9. Jaromir Jagr, Devils. Yes, I also can’t believe two Devils are on this list. But Jagr is still one of the game’s great characters. He’s capable of going off on a hilarious tangent at any point, but he can also speak with tremendous insight about the game and his experience playing it:

Soon enough, the 43-year-old will be retired and back in his native Czech Republic. Enjoy him while you can. Read more

The Florida Panthers: the NHL’s least-predictable team

Adam Proteau
Aleksander Barkov (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Quick, without looking at the particulars of their roster – how many points do you think the Florida Panthers will finish with this season? The measly (and second-worst in the NHL) 66 points they scraped together in 2013-14? The 94 points that helped them win the Southeast Division and secure the third seed in the playoffs in 2011-12?

But more to the point – regardless of how you think the Panthers will do this year, would you be confident enough to bet a notable amount of money on them? And if so, has your confidence level been surgically enhanced, or were you always this unfoundedly self-assured?

Because if there’s one thing I’m sure about this season, it’s that nobody quite knows what to make of Florida. Granted, that’s true to one degree or another of all but four or five teams at the top of the NHL’s echelon, and maybe one or two at the bottom. But whether it’s the THN editorial department or the hockey world at large, there’s no consensus on how the Panthers will perform.

Case in point: when THN staffers got together over the summer to debate and discuss our collective picks for our annual Yearbook, some of us saw Florida as a playoff team – enough of us to slot them in fourth overall in the Atlantic Division.

To be honest, I’m as shocked as you probably are. Read more

What have we learned since Bertuzzi-Moore? Not much it seems

Todd Bertuzzi (Photo By Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

In the 10-plus years since the Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore incident, you can be rest assured that NHL coaches and players have chosen their dressing room words very, very carefully when it comes to the issue of seeking retribution. And there hasn’t been an incident as egregious and disastrous since then, so the culture of revenge no longer exists in hockey, right?

Wrong. It has been speculated that with the civil lawsuit between Moore and Bertuzzi/the Vancouver Canucks finally settled, Moore will receive somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million. But there is so much we will never know. Such as, how was the amount split between Bertuzzi and the Canucks? That would go a long way toward determining whether Bertuzzi acted alone as a friend hell-bent on revenge or was simply a pawn that was contractually obliged to follow the instructions of his superiors.

Even though it went seemingly down to the last minute – the trial was to begin Monday – the reality is probably that this was never going to go to trial. Because if it had, the truth would have had to come out. And it would not have been pretty.

The NHL and its culture of violence/revenge would have been on trial every bit as much as Bertuzzi and the Canucks were. It’s a culture many in hockey would have us believe is no longer a part of the game. Fighting has been trending downward for some time and fewer and fewer teams have space on their rosters for the second coming of Ogie Oglethorpe.

But have we really learned that much from Bertuzzi-Moore? That’s debatable. At the very least, Shawn Thornton seemed to have missed the memo. Last season, in response to what he viewed as a dirty hit on teammate Loui Eriksson, Thornton attacked Brooks Orpik, then of the Pittsburgh Penguins, in an incident that looked eerily like the Bertuzzi-Moore attack. Thornton received a 15-game suspension for his act, with then director of player safety Brendan Shanahan justifying the ban by saying: “It is our view that this was an act of retribution for an incident that occurred earlier in the game, the result of this action by Thornton was a serious injury to Orpik.”

And did Thornton get ostracized from the game for what he did? Actually, when the Boston Bruins decided not to sign him after last season, the Florida Panthers offered him a two-year contract. As my colleague Adam Proteau pointed out recently, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux calls out the league to get violence out of the game, then allows his team to sign Dan Carcillo and Steve Downie because the Penguins star players get pushed around too much in the playoffs. I’m not sure that makes him a hypocrite. It’s more an indication that Lemieux knows his message is falling on deaf ears, that the league is not going to protect his stars and he has no choice in the matter. (There’s a reason why Carcillo, who is on his sixth NHL team, has the survival instincts of a cockroach. It’s because teams continue to see worth in what he brings.)

And when Tomas Hertl of the San Jose Sharks seemed to push the envelope by getting a little too cute on his fourth goal against the New York Rangers, there were almost as many critics as there were admirers. One of them was Nashville Predators color commentator Terry Crisp, who said, “Let me tell you young man. You pull that move too often and somebody’s going to want retribution on you.”

And how often do we see a player being forced to stand up for himself and face an onslaught of punches after executing a perfectly clean, but devastating hit on a star player? How often do we see teams still “sending a message” to its opponent late in a game that is out of reach? And really it wasn’t that long ago that former director of hockey operations Colin Campbell made his infamous, “We sell hate. Our game sells hate,” comments. How often do we see the league’s own website tag a video as a “Must See” when that video involves fighting and mayhem?

It’s great to see the Bertuzzi-Moore incident finally settled, even though there are a lot of people who would have liked to see this thing go the distance. So, that has been put to bed and confidentiality agreements will likely keep us from ever knowing the minute details of the case. We know Moore will never play in the NHL and Bertuzzi, after reportedly rebuffing a pitch from Mike Keenan to play in the KHL for Mettalurg Magnitigorsk, is a veteran free agent still waiting to find a team. But to suggest the game and the NHL have made enormous strides since then is probably a stretch. A big one.

Would you rather have Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov, or Seth Jones and Sam Reinhart?

Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

When the Florida Panthers held the second overall pick in the 2013 draft they selected center Aleksander Barkov instead of defenseman Seth Jones. It wasn’t the move a majority of onlookers would have made, so it set up a nice “What If” scenario to follow in the coming years.

With Barkov and 2010 pick Nick Bjugstad setting the foundation for a potentially crushing 1-2 punch down the middle in the future, Florida’s choice at the top of the 2014 draft was much clearer. Three or four players were considered legitimate candidates to go No. 1, but the Panthers took Aaron Ekblad – the only defenseman in the group – to fill out the roster need they passed on a year earlier. Today, Ekblad signed his three-year entry-level deal with the Panthers and will likely start on the second or third pairing in October. No surprise there. Read more