Canada went a bit against form this year by taking a younger team to the world juniors. But watch 2014 draft prospect Aaron Ekblad patrol the blueline and you'll see why the kid made the cut.
MALMO, SWEDEN – Canada went a bit against form this year by bringing a younger team to the world juniors, but when you look at the names, it's hard to argue against the logic. Forwards Sam Reinhart (2014 draft) and Connor McDavid (2015) look to be franchise centerpieces in the NHL's near future, while on the back end defenseman Aaron Ekblad has proven why he is far and away the best blueliner available in this summer's draft.
Pairing with Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Derrick Pouliot, Ekblad has played his part on the tandem, shutting down the opposition with his long reach and attention to detail while finding great chemistry with the Portland Winterhawks star.
“He's so good with the puck and he's so poised with it that it lets me play more of a defensive game,” Ekblad said. “I can support him and I'm behind him if he makes a mistake.”
As the youngest member of Canada's 'D' corps, Ekblad is part of a bigger machine, but his work in earlier showcases and as a regular with the Ontario League's Barrie Colts put him on the map for the selection committee.
“His play at the Ivan Hlinka (under-18 summer tournament) was the first step in thinking he could be a candidate to make this team,” said Ryan Jankowski, Team Canada's head scout. “You go watch him in Barrie, he plays a lot of minutes, he really has to manage his ice because he plays so much. In the CHL-Russia Subway Series, he elevated his game. He's one of those players where no matter the situation, he's going to be a very good player.”
Jankowski cited Ekblad's maturity as one of the youngster's best assets and you can't forget the 6-foot-4, 216-pound frame, either. Ekblad's roommate in Malmo certainly hasn't let it slip his mind.
“He has the body of like, a 35 or 40-year-old,” said defenseman Matt Dumba. “The guy shaves his chest every week. I can't believe it, he's a man-child – just a huge human being. I call him 'Shrek.' But he's a great kid, I love being his roommate.”
Also big fans of the kid? Brothers Dale and Mark Hunter. The legendary coach-and-GM tandem with the London Knights ran Canada's Ivan Hlinka team this summer, where they saw Ekblad assist on three goals and set up the play that led to another tally via penalty shot in a 4-0 win over the Czechs. They also got a big dose of the defenseman the previous spring when Ekblad's Colts nearly knocked off the Knights in the OHL final, succumbing only in Game 7 and with major injuries damaging their chances. “They spoke volumes about him in the playoffs last year,” Jankowski said. “He and Mark Scheifele were Barrie's two best players. He's been battle-tested and gone through a lot – he's not your typical 17-year-old.”
Indeed, along with playing solid in his own end, Ekblad can bring offense and hasn't been afraid to make runs into the offensive zone at the world juniors if the situation allows for it. Getting solid minutes and a clear plan from coach Brent Sutter has also helped.
“Brent wants us to play a game of instinct and use our skill as well as stick to the structure,” Ekblad said. “We do have a solid structure and things we want to achieve each game, like making passes in a certain order, but if you can throw in some skill that can help the team or make a play where you're sure something can happen, he wants that to happen.”
Ekblad, already in his third season with the Colts thanks to the exceptional status he earned through the “John Tavares Rule,” is in fact so ahead of the curve that this will likely be his only world juniors. With his size, diversity of game and maturity, whichever NHL team selects him this summer will likely have a nice, warm roster spot all set for him. Until then, he's soaking in the experience of wearing the Maple Leaf in Malmo.
“I'm happy to be here and happy to be playing with such great players,” he said. “Getting the minutes I am, the trust the coaches have in me is great and that's building my confidence.”
A gold medal wouldn't hurt, either.
Get scores, schedules and more on THN.com’s World Junior Championship Central page.