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 from Belle River, Ont., seen as perhaps the most NHL-ready player in the draft talent pool. “It was breath-taking to say the least.”
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 overall to the Buffalo Sabres and Prince Albert Raiders forward Leon Draisaitl was selected third by the Edmonton Oilers.
Tallon had offers for his pick, but elected to stick with the big Barrie Colts blue-liner.
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 last defenceman to go first overall in the NHL draft was Erik Johnson, taken by St. Louis in 2006.
Going into the draft, Tallon said he was 70 per cent certain he would keep the No. 1 pick, despite “intriguing” offers that included an established player and lower pick in the first round.
The Panthers (29-45-8) won the draft lottery ahead of Buffalo (21-51-10) to kick off the draft for the first time since 1994 when they drafted defenceman Ed Jovanovski, now 38 and on his second stint in south Florida. Florida also won the draft lottery in 2002 and 2003, but traded away the pick both years.
There was a run on blue-liners in the ’90s with Roman Hamrlik (1992, Tampa Bay), Jovanovski (1994, Florida), Bryan Berard (1995, Ottawa) and Chris Phillips (1996, Ottawa) all going first overall.
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.
After Bennett, Oshawa Generals winger Michael Dal Colle went to the New York Islanders and Calgary Hitmen winger Jake Virtanen became a Vancouver Canuck.
Red Deer defenceman Haydn Fleury was chosen seventh overall by the Carolina Hurricanes, ahead of Modo forward William Nylander (Toronto), Halifax winger Nikolaj Ehlers (Winnipeg) and Peterborough winger Nick Ritchie (Anaheim in a pick obtained earlier from Ottawa).
The Canucks selected Sault Ste. Marie centre Jared McCann with the 24th overall pick and the Montreal Canadiens took Russian winger Nikita Scherbak of the Saskatoon Blades with the 26th selection.
After Friday’s first round, there will be six more rounds Saturday.
Apart from Tallon’s cheeky delay at the mic, there were few other surprises. The top names all went high.
Ekblad was ranked second among draft prospects by the International Scouting Services, which had Reinhart No. 1.
Reinhart, an 18-year-old from North Vancouver, is seen as an elite playmaker with good skating and puck skills. The six-foot-one 185-pounder, named WHL player of the year in 2013-14, has true hockey bloodlines.
Brother Max was selected by the Calgary Flames in the third round (63rd overall) in the 2010 draft, while brother Griffin was chosen fourth overall by the Islanders in 2012. Father Paul, a 12th-round draft pick of the Atlanta Flames in 1979, played 11 NHL seasons with the Flames and Canucks.
The crowd at Wells Fargo Center started a “Let’s Go Flyers” chant before the opening roll call of teams. Every other team was greeted with the word “Sucks” as their name was announced — with the exception of Pittsburgh and Boston, who drew deafening boos.
Comcast president Dave Scott, head of the company that owns the Flyers, congratulated the Los Angeles Kings on winning the Stanley Cup — and defeating the rival Rangers in the final. The feisty crowd loved the kicker.
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.