Ekblad ready to step up after he 'cruised through' early years

Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images Sport / Getty

It's fairly safe to say no one within the Florida Panthers organization has been disappointed in the play of defenseman Aaron Ekblad, but the former Calder Trophy winner admitted he could have prepared himself better in the early stages of his career.

"I may have cruised through my first two years a little bit too much. The real work began this summer. I truly believe that and I truly believe I'm the most confident and ready that I have ever been to play the game," Ekblad said, according to Dan Rosen of NHL.com.

Ekblad was named Rookie of the Year for the 2014-15 season, after being selected first overall and posting 39 points and a plus-12 rating in 81 games. Both his point totals and number of games played dropped in each of his next two seasons, and he finished with just 21 points in 68 games in 2016-17, the final year of his entry-level contract.

The 21-year-old is viewing his worst statistical season as a wake-up call.

"That's a season where you really realize how hard it is, how hard this league is, how hard it is to stick around," Ekblad said. "It's easy to take that for granted with the money that we're paid and the opportunities that we get. You have to really humble yourself. Last year humbled me."

As he enters the first season of his eight-year, $60-million deal, Ekblad isn't ready to sit back and consider his job done.

"This league is not a league where you're invincible," he said. "You've got to fight hard every day to stay in it no matter how long your deal is and no matter how much you're getting paid. That is something that I learned and it's something I'm going to hold with me dearly to the end of my career.

Last season was the first of Ekblad's career in which he did not receive Norris Trophy consideration. Without his usual contributions, the Panthers finished sixth in the Atlantic Division and out of the playoffs.

Ekblad ready to step up after he 'cruised through' early years
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