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.
“That’s more like it,” he said.
There was mild applause when the team selected little-known defenseman Travis Sanheim.
Former Flyer Rod Brind’Amour received a huge ovation when the Carolina assistant coach made the pick for the Hurricanes.
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.
The Coyotes made their first pick since changing their name from Phoenix to Arizona. They selected forward Brendan Perlini with the first pick in “Arizona” history.
There was a big trade in the hours before the draft, when the Anaheim Ducks acquired center Ryan Kesler from the Vancouver Canucks for center Nick Bonino, defenseman Luca Sbisa and the 24th overall pick Friday.
The 29-year-old Kesler is a standout two-way center who has spent his entire 10-season career in Vancouver, compiling six 20-goal seasons and 392 career points. The two-time U.S. Olympian won the Selke Trophy in 2011 as the NHL’s best defensive forward.
Nashville traded forward Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling to the Pittsburgh Penguins for forward James Neal midway through the draft.
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