PHILADELPHIA – 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 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.
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.
“That’s more like it,” he said.
There was mild applause when the team selected little-known defenseman Travis Sanheim.
The Sabres selected center Sam Reinhart with the second overall pick. He is the son of former NHL player Paul Reinhart, who was selected by the Atlanta Flames in the first round in 1979.
Reinhart has the potential to be a top-line center in filling a key need for the rebuilding Sabres, who are coming off one of their worst seasons in franchise history. Buffalo (21-51-10) finished last in the NHL standings, and set a franchise record for losses.
The Edmonton Oilers selected center Leon Draisaitl with the third overall pick, Calgary took center Sam Bennett with the fourth pick and the New York Islanders picked forward Michael Dal Colle fifth.
Vancouver selected forward Jake Virtanen with the sixth pick, Carolina took defenseman Haydn Fleury seventh, Toronto took forward William Nylander eighth, Winnipeg selected forward Nickolaj Ehlers ninth and Anaheim completed the top 10 with forward Nick Ritchie.