When NHL Network released its list of top defensemen in the NHL, Florida Panthers star Aaron Ekblad came in at seventh.
The crop listed ahead of him?
Cale Makar, Victor Hedman, Roman Josi, Adam Fox, Charlie McAvoy and Kris Letang.
Over the past two seasons, Ekblad has found himself in the Norris Trophy conversation for the majority of the season — missing the end of the regular season with a freak injury in both.
He finished the 2021-22 season sixth in Norris Trophy voting.
Since the start of the 2020-21 season, the 26-year-old ranks fifth in goals (26) and 16th in points (79) in 96 games despite missing 42 games in that span.
His 0.82 points-per-game is eighth among blueliners who played at least 75 games in that span.
With the NHL having a new crop of young star defensemen — with four of the six players ranked ahead of Ekblad winning a Norris Trophy in the last five years and two of whom under the age of 25 — Ekblad has held his own despite the injuries.
Had he played the same number of games as Hedman, (136) Ekblad would have been on pace for 111 points (seventh) and 36 goals (T-first) over the last two seasons.
His impact goes beyond the scoresheet as well.
The 6-foot-4, 216-pound blueliner is an above-average skater for his size and uses his long reach to clog up passing lanes.
Ekblad plays a crucial role in Florida’s fast-paced transition offense on both ends of the ice, creating turnovers and making key breakout passes.
The biggest question that comes up with Ekblad is his health.
While leg injuries can be concerning, both of his were from freak occurrences that did not result in long-term ligament damage.
He returned from each of the injuries looking very much like himself and even showed improvement in his skating from 2020-21 to 2021-22 after he sustained a fractured ankle near the end of the regular season.
Ekblad came back from that injury to the tune of a 42 point (15 goals, 27 assists) season through the first 61 games before he went down with a lower-body injury.
He returned from that injury during Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs and had five points in 10 games while averaging over 23 minutes of time-on-ice per game.
While it is safe to say that Ekblad has had no issues recovering from these injuries, the run of bad luck he has had over the last couple of years has diluted his sample size compared to that of his peers.
Cale Makar is coming off of a 2021-22 season which saw him win the Norris Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy after leading the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup. His 86 points in 77 games in the regular season and 29 points in 20 postseason games speak for themselves.
Roman Josi is coming off of a historic season in his own right, coming within four points of becoming the first defenseman since Brian Leetch (1991-92) to score 100 points in a season.
Victor Hedman and Adam Fox are also recent Norris Trophy winners with superior statistics and recent playoff success in their own right.
For now, it seems like that top four group of defensemen is untouchable.
But is Ekblad that next guy up?
Looking at who NHL Network had listed ahead of him — McAvoy and Letang — there is a good argument he is.
Ekblad’s numbers over the past two seasons match up pretty well with both of his counterparts.
Letang put up 17 goals and 113 points in 133 games during that span, which Ekblad would have been right up there with if he kept to his projected 36-goal, 111-point pace.
McAvoy posted 15 goals and 86 points over 129 games in that span, with Ekblad creeping seven points behind him despite the 33-game difference in games played.
Offensively, it seems as though Ekblad has the advantage.
Defensively, McAvoy is the best of the bunch, anchoring a Boston blue line that has lost its depth since he entered the league in 2016. Letang and Ekblad are about even on the defensive end.
That begs the question — is Ekblad the best of that next tier of defensemen?
For now, I would say no.
McAvoy’s defensive impact makes the difference and the 24-year-old is only getting better.
With a larger sample size of the production he had been putting up over the last two seasons and continued stability defensively without his usual defensive partner in Weegar in the fold, things could change.