By Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press
Aaron Ekblad may be the most mature 18-year-old hockey player on the planet.
"Not only does he have a 30-year-old's physique under his equipment but he also thinks and acts like a 10-year NHL vet," said Dan Stewart, scouting director for the independent scouting service Future Considerations.
Ekblad, a two-way, right-shooting defenceman, knows what he wants to be not only in this week's NHL draft but as a professional. He'd love to go No. 1 and continue to mould himself in the images of Shea Weber, Alex Pietrangelo and Duncan Keith.
More than anything, though, the Barrie Colts captain wants to be considered reliable on and off the ice.
"I don't do too many things that are going to surprise anyone," Ekblad said at last month's scouting combine. "I'm going to be the kind of player that you know what you're going to get from me."
Steady and dependable doesn't put butts in seats, but Ekblad isn't touting himself as a flashy kind of player. Instead, and more importantly, he has the potential to develop into a franchise cornerstone.
Because of that, the Belle River, Ont., native is the front-runner to be the top pick Friday night in Philadelphia, whether the Florida Panthers choose to keep it or trade it. Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray said last week he expected Ekblad to go No. 1 regardless.
If that happens, Ekblad would be the first defenceman to be selected with the top pick since Erik Johnson in 2006, and the first Canadian-born blue-liner in that spot since Chris Phillips in 1996.
Ekblad knows it has been a "long time" since a defenceman was drafted first. But it would come as no shock to NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr.
"Aaron Ekblad is a hard player to go past in the draft, I think, for any of the teams, and they know that," Marr said at the combine. "There doesn't seem to be a will to take a defenceman high because a lot of times you don't get the quick bang for your buck."
Ekblad wants to provide that, just as 2013 No. 4 pick Seth Jones did for the Nashville Predators. "A hundred per cent" he wants to be in the NHL next season, and he told that to all 16 teams that interviewed him.
"That's the way I believe in myself," Ekblad said. "I wouldn't say I'm cocky, but I'm confident and I believe that if I work hard and I do all the little things and pay attention to details, I can be in that league next year."
With that confidence in mind, Ekblad still watched games this past season and recognized the NHL is a hard league to crack and that getting drafted is just a foot in the door.
"It means nothing until you prove that you're ready to do it," he said.
Scouts believe Ekblad is prepared to prove it. In the six-foot-three, 213-pound prospect, Ross MacLean of ISS Hockey, another independent scouting service, sees someone with skills to insulate himself from making mistakes and the maturity to be able to adjust to the next level.
"He's a kid that I think probably could've played in the NHL this year, let alone next year," MacLean said. "I think we saw that with Seth Jones, as well, last year. They've just been put into positions where they've been able to acclimatize and get comfortable and confident and develop their skills at the appropriate pace, and they're ready for the next step."
Typically, there's a learning curve for even the best young defencemen before they can become NHL regulars, let alone stars. But a handful from the top 10 of the 2012 draft, including the Toronto Maple Leafs' Morgan Rielly, Anaheim Ducks' Hampus Lindholm and Columbus Blue Jackets' Ryan Murray, played the full 2013-14 season and showed it may not be as steep as it once was.
During the season, then-Predators and now Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz theorized that it's because junior hockey has more pro systems designed to help defencemen adapt quicker.
Stewart thinks Ekblad can adjust on the fly because of his awareness. After being given the captaincy in Barrie, Ekblad "was trying to do everything," Stewart said, before recognizing his weaknesses and dialling back to what he's good at.
"He has shown time and time again that he learns from mistakes," Stewart said. "Ekblad is always thinking and while he does make some mistakes from time to time, he also shows an ability to compensate for any situational deficiencies. Because of his slower feet, while defending speedy forwards attacking the zone, he gives himself a little larger gap than say if he were going up against someone he feels he can easily wedge off the puck.
"It's his advanced thinking on the fly and understanding of his position that should benefit him quickly at the next level."
Physically, Ekblad is undoubtedly NHL-ready. After earning exceptional status to play in the OHL at the age of 15, he has gone through three junior seasons in Barrie and held his own at the world junior championship.
Stewart was impressed with how Ekblad handled pressure situations and defensive responsibilities while playing for Canada at the world juniors.
In Barrie, Colts teammate, roommate and best friend Brendan Lemieux â€” a projected first- or second-round pick in his own right and the son of former NHL agitator Claude Lemieux â€” saw Ekblad show even more.
"Ek really showed that he was willing to stand up and answer the bell, even with his gloves off. I watched him pound a few guys this year," Lemieux said at the combine. "He might not show that physical presence and how big he is and how tough he can be, but he's a tough guy, too. He's not just a super-skilled big guy, he's a super-skilled big, tough guy."
Ekblad is certainly better known for his 23 goals and 30 assists than his three fights, and it was that offence balanced with defensive acumen that earned him OHL defenceman of the year honours.
It's hard to be upset about that kind of season, but Ekblad insisted he's not satisfied with what he showed scouts.
"That's kind of the way everyone here should be thinking: I believe I can always be better," he said. "You look back on some games, some shifts and (think), 'What if you did this instead of that?' I wouldn't say I have any regrets, per se. I think I had a pretty good year. But there's always things you could've done."
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