Aaron Ekblad, 21, has as many concussions as NHL seasons played. If the Panthers don’t shut him down for the year, they’re taking a massive and irresponsible risk.
Eric Lindros was at the peak of his powers March 7, 1998. He was 25, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound force of nature, hockey’s answer to Shaquille O’Neal. He’d won a Hart Trophy in 1994-95. He racked up 115 points in 73 games in 1995-96. He guided his Philadelphia Flyers to a Stanley Cup final appearance in 1996-97. But on that day in March, he ran into a wall named Darius Kasparaitis. Lindros suffered the first documented concussion of his NHL career, and the doomsday clock on his playing days began ticking.
Lindros sustained his second concussion Dec. 27, 1999 and another one a little more than two weeks later, Jan. 14, 2000, followed by a fourth in March, a fifth in early May and, famously, the sixth devastating blow in late May on a hit from Scott Stevens in the 2000 playoffs. In 2017, we know a lot about second impact syndrome, in which the brain swells from a second concussion before symptoms of a previous concussion have healed, and Lindros may have suffered through third, fourth and fifth impact syndrome during that horrific half-year stretch. Who knows how much longer he may have played had the Flyers medical staff and the NHL in general been better educated on brain injuries at the time and allowed him proper time to heal?
Today, we understand much better the perils of returning too early from concussions. Sidney Crosby endured second impact syndrome when he sustained brain blows in back to back games Jan. 1 and 5 in the midst of his epic 2010-11 season. He didn’t play again until Nov. 21, almost a year later. The Penguins gave him the time he needed. When a freak Dec. 5 collision with teammate Chris Kunitz shelved him again, the Pens held him out until March. Crosby sustained a minor concussion just before this season began and missed six games. The Pens understand their best player, the world’s best player, can never be rushed back in his recovery from concussions.
Which brings us to the Florida Panthers’ best, most important player. Like Crosby and Lindros, defenseman Aaron Ekblad is a first-overall NHL draft pick who became a teenage phenom and, like Crosby and Lindros, Ekblad is amassing an alarming concussion history at a young age. Younger, actually. Or perhaps doctors are just better at diagnosing them today. Regardless, Ekblad, 21, is at least three and perhaps four concussions deep as an NHLer already. The first occurred at Canada’s 2014 world junior training camp when he was 18, just before he commenced his Calder Trophy-winning rookie season with the Panthers. The second came in January 2016 on a vicious hit that earned Matt Hendricks of the Edmonton Oilers a three-game suspension. Ekblad’s third concussion appeared to come this past September while playing for Team North America at the 2016 World Cup when Finland’s Leo Komarov drilled him into the boards. Ekblad later told reporters he was suffering from whiplash, not a concussion, though those two injuries often accompany each other.
Then came Ekblad’s third official concussion and fourth noteworthy head/neck injury this past weekend against the Tampa Bay Lightning on a hit from behind from Gabriel Dumont. Ekblad collapsed in a heap. Panthers GM and interim coach Tom Rowe announced Monday Ekblad would miss seven to 10 days recovering.
Oh no. Please let the recovery period be longer than that. Please let Ekblad’s next NHL game be in October 2017.
The Panthers made some noise in the Atlantic Division playoff race once Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov got healthy and reformed the top line with Jaromir Jagr, but the team has since sagged again. Goaltender Roberto Luongo has missed a couple weeks with a lower-body injury, and backup James Reimer has struggled in his stead. Florida has lost four straight games and suddenly sits seven points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. It will take a pretty miraculous stretch to dig out of this hole – especially with no Ekblad and Luongo.
Even if the Panthers squeaked into the post-season, they’d likely do so as a No. 8 seed and secure a date with the Washington Capitals or Pittsburgh Penguins. Florida won’t challenge for the Stanley Cup this year, no matter what. So why even consider bringing Ekblad back this season?
Ekblad has as many concussions as seasons played in the NHL so far in his career, and that should terrify the Panthers. He’s a stud. He had one of the most productive starts to a career ever for a teenage defenseman. His third season, though, stands out as his weakest to date. The Panthers have to hope the head and neck injuries aren’t starting to take their toll already and affect his play, especially when they’ve invested eight seasons at a $7.5-million cap hit for his services, paying him through to unrestricted free agency in 2024-25.
If Panthers are smart, they’ve learned from Lindros and understand how little they have to gain bringing Ekblad back this season. They have a hell of a lot to lose if they take a chance on reinserting him. So does Ekblad. He has potential for a remarkable NHL career, but if he keeps injuring his brain within a small timeframe, that career will be remarkably and tragically short.
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