The first overall pick in 2014 is almost a lock to jump straight to the Florida Panthers, but nevertheless he's playing at Team Canada's world junior evaluation camp right now.
The chance to play for Team Canada in an international event is one of the bigger dreams of most hockey players, no matter how good they are. In fact, I can tell you exactly what it means to every single player I've asked, because they all have the same response: "Any time you get to put on that jersey, it's a great honor."
So I'm not surprised that Florida Panthers prospect Aaron Ekblad wanted to play at Canada's world junior exhibition camp in Quebec. But why would the Panthers allow the No. 1 overall pick to play in the mini-tournament against the Czechs and Russians?
In speaking with execs from other teams (attempts to reach the Panthers were unsuccessful), they always like having their top prospects put in situations where they can develop, so it's not crazy that Florida would want their most prominent draft pick to take on a leadership role in the summer and get some reps as he prepares for his first NHL training camp. Unfortunately, injuries are an unpredictable part of the game.
And after seeing their prized prospect get hurt Tuesday night on a hit from Czech defenseman Lukas Klok, the Panthers must be feeling like they rolled snake eyes:
(GIF via Jameson Cooper Oliver, @JamesonCoop)
For me, the question is this: What are the odds Ekblad actually plays for Canada at the world juniors this year? Florida may have some nice young defensemen in the pipeline, but there's no reason to believe Ekblad can't find a place in the team's top six this fall. He has already played three years in the Ontario League with Barrie and his pedigree practically dictates that he will jump straight to the NHL.
The last time a first overall pick did not go right to the NHL was in 2006, when Erik Johnson attended the University of Minnesota instead of signing with the St. Louis Blues. True, Johnson was also the last defenseman before Ekblad to be taken first overall, but he was a lot more raw than Ekblad and jumped to St. Louis the next year anyway.
As for Hockey Canada, the organization set its own precedent last year when Griffin Reinhart, Morgan Rielly, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin did not play for the team at the Lake Placid summer tournament hosted by Team USA. But according to team rep Keegan Goodrich, the situation was different because Canada sent fewer players to Lake Placid then they are hosting in Montreal and Sherbrooke now. They are also playing one more game this year, meaning more opportunities to swap guys in and out of the lineup.
And even though Ekblad would be a lock for Team Canada on the off chance he is not patrolling the blueline for the Panthers, it has been Canadian protocol that players attend camp unless they have been on two previous world junior teams – Ryan Ellis being an example. Ekblad had only played in one.
Ekblad was apparently smiling after the game, so maybe it's all good. But if this collision in anyway ends up stunting his NHL development, it will be a tough pill to swallow for Florida and its fans.