Concern Over Aaron Ekblad
May 4, 2017, 1:44 PM ET [13 Comments]
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After such a dismal season for the Florida Panthers, it's hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong.
Many will say the November firing of former head coach Gerard Gallant sent this team into a mental tailspin that was irrecoverable.
Most will say former GM/interim head coach Tom Rowe quickly lost the locker room, resulting in the late season collapse that left everyone looking for scapegoats.
There are many reasons for why this season of hope turned disaster. Rowe is obviously enemy #1 in the eyes of the fan base, but it's unfair to put all the blame on him in terms of on ice results. They beat very good teams and lost to bad ones under his tutelage.
But one decision that might linger into next season and beyond is Rowe letting Aaron Ekblad play soon after he suffered his fourth career concussion late this season.
After going 5-0 on a rousing west coast road trip in February, putting the Panthers in a prime position for a playoff berth, the collapse of all collapses commenced.
So much so that in just three weeks they were all but eliminated.
When Ekblad was concussed on a cheap shot from behind by Gabriel Dumont, his season should have been over. With nothing to play for and a cornerstone player with as many concussions as he has years as a pro, rest and recuperation should have been the only thing in his future.
Not only is he important to the future of this organization, next year begins an enormous financial investment as well. Ekblad signed an 8-year, $60 million contract extension last summer.
Causing more trepidation was Ekblad showed signs of regression this year even before the concussion. His overall game looked nothing like previous seasons. Whipping boy Rowe will get all the blame for this but Ekblad didn't look good with Gallant either.
Did the security of finally getting the big contract cause the slump or is it concussions catching up to him?
In March Matt Larkin of The Hockey News wrote a great article begging the Panthers not to turn Ekblad into the next Eric Lindros. With all that is known about concussions in today's sports world, it is mystifying that Rowe decided to let Ekblad play again.
Naturally, Ekblad had a "sore neck" after his return, a symptom directly related to concussion-like issues. He mercifully never played another game.
We all know concussions are not to be taken lightly. Ekblad is only 21 years old. More important that the 60 million reasons he needs to be a star for the Panthers is his short and long-term health.
The Penguins have been overly conservative with Sidney Crosby when he has dealt with such issues. He is one of the best players in the world and they won't rush him back for anything.
Perhaps Rowe was so desperate to keep his job he was willing to risk a young player's future for the sake of a few extra wins. With the way Ekblad was playing it wouldn't have made a difference.
As the Miami Herald's George Richards reported, Rowe regretted bringing back Ekblad so early, if at all. While the honesty is appreciated, it doesn't make up for the fact that as a player gets more concussions, healing time gets longer. Long term effects become practically inevitable.
Add to this to the laundry list of reasons Panther Nation loathes Rowe, but it might be the most valid gripe in terms of this organization's future.
Hockey in the NHL can be a brutal sport. The revealed lists of injuries on each team at season's end is always eye-popping. What these players play through makes all other sports look like tiddlywinks.
But concussions are concussions. They can happen to any of us at any time. Obviously NHL players are in the line of fire to suffer such injuries much more often than most people. More problematic is how often plays resulting in concussions aren't called penalties during the game.
In Ekblad's case, past mistakes by coaches could linger into the future. Furthermore, with all the attention given to concussions in our current climate, how long before a player lets his head issues affect his mindset, which in turn affects his play?
Was that already happening with Ekblad during this down year for him statistically?
That is to be decided.
But he needs at least a full season or two without any head trauma to quell the nervousness within the organization about his future. A concussion per season is the fast track to a short career, and swift diminishing returns.
For a Florida organization that is committed to him through 2025, collective fingers are crossed.