June 28, 2014 - 10:25 AM
PHILADELPHIA - Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon kept everyone guessing right up to his announcement to open Friday's NHL draft.
"We proudly select, with the first pick overall of the 2014 NHL draft from the Ontario Hockey League," Tallon told a feisty full house at Wells Fargo Arena.
And then he paused for dramatic effect.
"Aaron Ekblad," Tallon finally pronounced.
"I did not know. I was freaking out there for a second when he stopped," said Ekblad, a normally unflappable 18-year-old defenceman from Belle River, Ont., seen as perhaps the most NHL-ready player in the draft pool. "It was breath-taking to say the least."
Said a straight-faced Tallon: "I thought we were in show-business. This is entertainment isn't it?"
"I made Ekblad sweat a little," he added.
With Kingston Frontenacs forward Sam Bennett ranked No. 1 ahead of Ekblad among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, there was Ontario competition for the top pick.
Bennett eventually went fourth to the Calgary Flames.
Kootenay Ice centre Sam Reinhart went second to the Buffalo Sabres and Prince Albert Raiders forward Leon Draisaitl was selected third by the Edmonton Oilers.
Draisaitl becomes the highest-drafted German-born player in NHL history. Previously that honour was held by Marcel Goc, taken 20th overall by San Jose in 2001.
Tallon had two "really substantial" offers for his pick, but elected to stick with the big Barrie Colts blue-liner.
"We decided at noon we were going to go this way," he said.
Ekblad, who spent three seasons with the Colts, is seen as a potential franchise defenceman who is ahead of many of his fellow juniors in terms of size, strength and maturity.
The teenager with Hollywood good looks feels he can help the Panthers in the fall.
"I've said that from the very beginning that I believe in myself and I'm confident," he said. "I think if you don't believe in yourself and you're not confident, you're putting yourself behind the eight-ball right off the bat. I believe that if I work hard this summer, I can really step into the NHL next year. Obviously I'm going to need a lot of help and it's going to be a learning curve, but again I'm confident in myself."
The six-foot-three 216-pound Ekblad, granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada to enter the OHL at just 15, had 23 goals, 30 assists and 91 penalty minutes in 58 games last season.
Ekblad says he plays "strong responsible defence" while trying to contribute on offence.
The Panthers will be hoping to repeat the success of Colorado last year with the first pick. Centre Nathan MacKinnon jumped directly to the NHL from the Halifax Mooseheads, winning the Calder Memorial Trophy as top rookie along the way.
A year after trading away Cory Schneider and three months after trading away Roberto Luongo, the Vancouver Canucks replenished their goaltending depth by selecting Thatcher Demko with the 36th pick in the draft.
Demko, a cool customer in net at Boston College and behind a microphone, wasn't worried about the kind of pressure goaltenders are under in Vancouver.
"I'll thrive on it," he said with a big smile.
Ranked first among North American goalies by NHL Central Scouting, the San Diego native is a candidate to be the U.S. starter at this year's world junior championship in Montreal and Toronto.
The Canucks selected Sault Ste. Marie centre Jared McCann with the 24th overall pick.
Rather than use the 50th pick they acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday for defenceman Jason Garrison, the Canucks sent it to Los Angeles for winger Linden Vey. The highly-touted Kings prospect has five assists in just 18 games of NHL action and was stuck behind other young forwards like Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli, who played roles in the most-recent Stanley Cup run.
With the 66th pick, Vancouver took six-foot-six Russian defenceman Nikita Tryamkin.
Boos for Bettman
Commissioner Gary Bettman was booed long and loud when he took the stage. "I love your passion," said the unflappable commissioner.
The crowd kept booing and Bettman kept up the one-liners as the evening wore on.
The Canucks stole much of the pre-draft thunder earlier Friday, sending centre Ryan Kesler to Anaheim and defenceman Jason Garrison to Tampa Bay while acquiring forward Derek Dorsett from the Rangers.
For Ekblad, it was "by far the longest day of my entire life." But it ended well.
NOTES: The 30 players selected in the first round were born in 10 different countries: Canada (14), United States (five), Czech Republic (two), Finland (two), Russia (two), Denmark (one), England (one), Germany (one), Sweden (one) and Switzerland (one) ... Eight of the first 10 overall picks, including all of the first seven, came from the Ontario Hockey League or Western Hockey League. Ehlers (ninth overall) was the only one from the QMJHL.
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News from © The Canadian Press, 2014