Pens Deal Neal
PHILADELPHIA – The Florida Panthers selected defenseman Aaron Ekblad with the first pick in the NHL draft Friday night.
The 6-foot-4, 214-pound Ekblad played for Barrie in the Ontario Hockey League. He is the first defenseman to go No. 1 since St. Louis took Erik Johnson in 2006.
The Pittsburgh Penguins Friday sent forward James Neal to the Nashville Predators in exchange for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.
The addition of Neal signals the Predators’ emphasis on boosting their offense under new coach Peter Laviolette as they attempt to return to the playoffs after a two-year absence. The Predators have had a reputation as a defense-oriented team for virtually the franchise’s entire history.
The 26-year-old Neal had 27 goals and 34 assists in 59 games for the Penguins this season, which marked the sixth straight year he scored at least 20 goals.
Neal scored 40 goals in 2011-12 and had 21 goals in only 40 games during the 2012-13 season. He has 161 career goals and 154 assists in 413 career regular-season games, and has been a force on power plays.
Neal had been with the Penguins since 2010 after beginning his career with the Dallas Stars.
Hornqvist, 27, had 22 goals and 31 assists in 76 games this season, which marked the fourth time in his career he reached the 20-goal mark. He has 106 goals and 110 assists in 363 career regular-season games, all with Nashville.
Hornqvist’s best season came in 2009-10, when he scored a career-high 30 goals.
Spaling, 25, had 13 goals and 19 assists in 71 games for Nashville this season. He has 40 goals and 44 assists in 207 career regular-season games.
Without a clear cut No. 1, Panthers general manager Dale 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.
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.