Panthers take Ekblad with No. 1 pick in NHL draft

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) - With the first pick of the NHL draft, the Florida Panthers went with 15 seconds of dramatic pause before announcing the name.

The silence felt much longer for Aaron Ekblad.

“I was just sitting there just kind of scared and excited at the same time,” he said.

At last, general manager Dale Tallon made the call for Ekblad, selecting the defenseman with the first pick in the Friday night.

Ekblad, a 6-foot-4, 214-pound defenseman who played for Barrie in the Ontario Hockey League, is the first defenseman to go No. 1 since St. Louis took Erik Johnson in 2006.

Without a clear cut No. 1 on the board, Tallon was open to trading the pick. In the end, he decided to take the 18-year-old defenseman from Belle River, Ontario, with the first selection at the Wells Fargo Center.

“That is the burden of expectation. I chase it,” Ekblad said. “I want that burden of expectation. I want that feel for motivation and I want to succeed under that.”

The Panthers had a top-three pick in the NHL draft for the fourth time in the past five years. The first three - defenseman Erik Gudbranson (in 2010), wing Jonathan Huberdeau (2011) and center Aleksander Barkov (2013) - all played significant roles last season. Florida also won the draft lottery in 2002 and 2003, but traded away those picks.

“We are thrilled to have selected Aaron with the No. 1 pick,” Tallon said. “He is a strong, smart and physically mature defenseman who skates well and can play at both ends of the ice. Aaron is another building block for our team and we are confident that he will fit well with our young nucleus of talented players that includes Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau and Erik Gudbranson. We look forward to his continued growth and contributions to our team and the South Florida community.”

Ekblad was the OHL’s most outstanding defenseman last season, ranking first among defensemen with 23 goals and tying for fifth with 53 points. He also served as Barrie’s captain.

Ekblad said he was NHL ready and should fit in with the Panthers after a recent scouting mission.

“You look who they have on their back end, right or left shots, all that kind of stuff,” he said. “I was watching to see if Florida would get a new coach. The last little while, it’s pretty fun to just follow that after the season.”

Flyers fans packed the arena for the first draft in the city. They gave one of the longest sustained boos in recent memory for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s draft introduction. He was drowned out for most of his 2-minute speech thanking the city for its hospitality.

“Isn’t this supposed to be the city of brotherly love,” he asked.

Bettman heard a huge ovation over the “Let’s Go Flyers!” chant when he introduced the hometown team for the 17th pick.

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