Aaron Ekblad (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Some contract decisions are easier than others. It was a slam-dunk to give phenom Aaron Ekblad big money and term.
We've seen oodles of controversial trades and some surprising money handed out this week, so it's refreshing to see a sensible contract handed out to a good, young, star player. The Florida Panthers have agreed with defenseman Aaron Ekblad on an eight-year, $60-million extension that kicks in for 2017-18. The contract may not be made official Friday with all the free agent hoopla happening but is all but completed.
Ekblad, 20 and a restricted free agent next summer, rocketed past any thought of a short-term, financially modest bridge deal pretty much the moment he took the ice as a rookie in 2014-15. His 39 points were the third most in NHL history by a defenseman in his age-18 season, trailing only Phil Housley's 66 in 1982-83 and Bobby Orr's 41 in 1966-67. Ekblad's numbers were all the more impressive considering the low-scoring era in which he plays. He took home the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.
Ekblad was a force on defense for the Panthers again this season. His 15 goals were the fourth-most by a blueliner in his age-19 season ever. He played in his first All-Star Game. He helped the Panthers reach the playoffs and set a franchise record for points. He averaged more than 21 minutes of ice time per game for the second straight season and logged 25-plus in the playoffs. In his first two seasons, he's posted a relative Corsi mark of 4.1, or 4.1 percent higher than his average Florida teammate. Any way we slice it, Ekblad looks like an elite, workhorse NHL defenseman and future captain. And let's remember the kid is just 20 years old. It's way too early to dub him a future Hall of Famer, but it's no exaggeration to say his career trajectory points toward "legendary" so far after two seasons.
And that's why Ekblad earned a max-term deal with a cap hit that will put him among the NHL's highest-paid blueliners. Other phenoms who bypassed bridge contracts or even medium-term deals to earn big-money on long-term pacts in recent years: Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson. They are two of the best blueliners of this generation, and Ekblad looks like he's headed into the same echelon.
Between Ekblad and recent signee Keith Yandle, the Panthers and GM Tom Rowe have their top 'D' pair locked up until at least 2022-23. That's when Yandle's contract expires. Still, the Panthers have shipped out Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov and waved goodbye to Brian Campbell this off-season. They better hope high-end prospect Michael Matheson is ready to step into a major role. His performance for Canada at the 2016 World Championship suggests he is.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin