Some expected Aaron Ekblad to take over as captain in Florida, but the Panthers have gone the veteran route and instead handed the 20-year-old blueliner an ‘A’ for the time being.
The Florida Panthers have a new captain, but it’s not who you might expect.
After speculation that one of the team’s young guns could be taking over the captaincy following the retirement of former captain Willie Mitchell, and with some believing the frontrunner for the ‘C’ was defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the Panthers have gone a different direction by turning to veteran center Derek MacKenzie as the club’s newest captain.
"Derek embodies the type of character and work ethic we want a Florida Panther to possess," said Florida’s president of hockey operations Dale Tallon. "He is a respected leader both on and off the ice in this organization and within the South Florida community. We are very excited to move forward with Derek as our team's captain."
MacKenzie, 35, is the ninth captain in the club’s history, and he could have been considered a long shot for the honor. However, considering the Panthers are still growing and finding their way as a young team, slapping the ‘C’ on a veteran player who can handle the pressure isn’t the worst move. MacKenzie has worn an ‘A’ for the club in each of the past two seasons, and he’s twice been the captain of AHL clubs in his career, most recently in 2009-10 with the Syracuse Crunch.
During the 2015-16 season, MacKenzie was far from an offensive dynamo, netting just six goals and 13 points in 64 games, but what MacKenzie may lack in skill with the puck on his stick he makes up for in his ability to be a solid defensive player. He’s relied upon as the Panthers’ top penalty killing forward, averaging upwards of 2:30 on the penalty kill per game during the past season.
Ekblad and Jokinen join MacKenzie as part of the leadership group, and, in effect, it is the Panthers’ way of grooming their next captain in Ekblad.
While it may be looking too far into the future to already paste a tentative ‘C’ on Ekblad’s jersey, the 20-year-old has already become the top blueliner in Florida three seasons into his career and inked an eight-year, $60-million deal in the off-season.
After the Edmonton Oilers named Connor McDavid their new captain, some believed it would be the perfect time to give Ekblad the go-ahead in Florida, and it’s not as if teams have been shy about putting the captaincy on young players in recent years. The Colorado Avalanche put the captaincy on Gabriel Landeskog at a young age, and the mid-2000s saw a fresh-faced Sidney Crosby take over as Pittsburgh Penguins captain and a sophomore Jonathan Toews wear the ‘C’ for the Chicago Blackhawks.
That said, McKenzie’s deal will be up in three seasons’ time, at which point he’ll be 38. That’s when Ekblad can come in and take over the captaincy — that is barring any unforeseen circumstance that leads to Ekblad stepping in sooner.
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