There's a lot of pressure that comes with being the No. 1 draft pick, but you wouldn't know it by looking at 18-year-old Aaron Ekblad, who is battling for a roster spot with the Florida Panthers. ESPN.com checks in with the highly touted young defenseman to see what his first glimpse of the NHL has been like.
STRANG: How's your rookie experience been? You don't seem very nervous or overwhelmed like most 18-year-olds, but I'm sure you're used to the media by now.
EKBLAD: Very used to it. It's been pretty normal, I guess. Came in here, got good guidance from the coaching staff. Willie Mitchell and some of the older guys have really taught me a lot, just things I need to do to help on and off the ice. It's been really good. Just steps and trying to get better along the way. Just trying to take it day by day.
STRANG: What's Willie been like as a defensive partner?
EKBLAD: Patient. Very patient person. I'm playing with him and I'm out there making mistakes. And he's teaching me. He's not getting mad at me, he's not getting upset or showing anger. He's calm and patient and teaching me what I need to do. Obviously, it's a different level, and I've never played here before. He's played for a long time. Not only does he have years in the game [on me], but he's got years in life on me. He's doing a lot to help me, and I really appreciate that.
STRANG: It's funny, he was talking Wednesday about your first preseason game and he said he felt like he let you down. The point being, I guess, that it's the preseason for everyone and it happens to the best of them.
"I think Shawn Thornton has to be the scariest guy I've ever seen before. I would not want to line up against him." Panthers No. 1 pick Aaron Ekblad
EKBLAD: That's why it's preseason, I guess. But you can't really put it behind you and not learn from it; I think that's one of the biggest things you need to do. You need to learn from each of those mistakes made during those games and try to capitalize in the next game from those mistakes. And not make them again; if you make them twice, then you're not learning and you're not progressing as a player. I don't plan on making those mistakes twice. I plan on learning from them and from all the things around me that are going on. It was nice watching the Dallas game. It's almost like watching video, watching from up there, getting a feel for what guys are doing and what you need to do.
STRANG: When you talk about the mistakes from your first game, was there any one play that stuck in your mind or bothered you?
EKBLAD: [Laughing] It wasn't just one, there was a couple, and that's when you know you're not playing like you're supposed to. But like I said, it's a learning experience. How fast and strong these guys are, it's a completely different game from junior hockey where guys aren't very fast, they aren't very strong, you can get away from making not so good of a play that ends up working because it's junior hockey and guys aren't capitalizing on mistakes you make. I think that's what I got away with a little too much in junior, and I think I need to just learn from it and get up to pace with these guys.
STRANG: Has anything changed drastically off the ice from your junior days?
EKBLAD: Not too much. Hotel living is a bit different.
STRANG: Do you have a go-to hotel meal yet? Some guys get really locked in to one particular dish where they are staying.
EKBLAD: Breakfast has been that way. Just been a meat omelet every single morning for the past 30 days. That's it. That's the one.
STRANG: Do you talk with your parents a lot?
EKBLAD: Not too often. We share the odd text here and there, but they're busy. They work 9-to-5 jobs. I'm busy at the rink. [There's] the odd time we get to FaceTime, stuff like that, texting most days. [We] share a text if there's something to take care of, or if you just need to talk to them. It's always nice to hear the calming voice of your mother. I do need that sometimes.
STRANG: You know Seth Jones lived with his mom during his rookie year.
EKBLAS: Unfortunately, I can't have that. My mom works. She's a nurse practitioner [in Belle River, Ontario], so I don't think I have that luxury. I don't think she would want to do that. However, I wouldn't really want her to [laughing]. If I end up living with a guy on the team or even by myself, I'm pretty mature that way. I can take care of myself. If I make this team, I probably want to live with somebody.
STRANG: Anyone in particular you could see yourself living with?
EKBLAD: I think it'd be great, because Willie for example, he's got years on me in life and in the game. He's got lots to offer, to teach me, and if I had that guidance outside the rink and at the rink, it would be awesome. Or Shawn Thornton, he's been around the game for a long time. A lot of those guys -- great guys, guys that are very smart and conserved themselves to have long careers in the NHL, and that's exactly what I want to do.
STRANG: Your first preseason game, did you get the sense that, 'Hey, I can do this?' That you can make the jump and be successful at this level?
EKBLAD: Of course. My first couple of games in the OHL were the same thing [as my first game in NHL]. It's a completely different level. These guys are 10 times better. ... It's a little different, but I feel I can make the jump. My first game wasn't the way I wanted it to go, but it wasn't terrible. It wasn't to the point that I was down and out. I can get back into it, learn from mistakes. My speed wasn't completely off, just my reads, my ability to make quick plays, and that all comes from learning where guys are, what they do. It's nothing that's going to push me out of the game.
STRANG: Anyone you lined up against that you were a bit intimidated or starstruck by?
EKBLAD: Not really intimidated, but it was pretty cool playing against [Olli] Jokinen in Nashville. Just seeing him in the game was a little bit different. No one I'm too starstruck by. I think Shawn Thornton has to be the scariest guy I've ever seen before. I would not want to line up against him.
STRANG: What makes you say that?
EKBLAD: Just the look in his eyes when he's squaring up for a fight. I saw it a couple times in Nashville. He's not a guy you have to mess with.
STRANG: How has new coach Gerard Gallant been?
EKBLAD: He's a players' coach. He's a very smart guy. He's obviously coached some great defensemen in Montreal. He was coaching P.K. Subban and stuff like that. He has a lot of experience and is doing a great job early in the season. Not sure how it's going to go for me, but he's a great coach and he's really out there trying to teach players the system and all the little things he wants. It's helping for sure.
STRANG: Willie said that back in his day, rookies would play almost every exhibition game. Do you wish that were the case for yourself?
EKBLAD: I understand the [Panthers'] approach 100 percent, for sure. That's their call, but I love the game of hockey, and anytime I want to be on the ice. That's just kind of the mentality I have. Dallas, I would've loved to play that game, but they're taking a different route and trying to mold this team together. I have to respect that and understand that, and I do.
STRANG: Any specific goals for you in your rookie season?
EKBLAD: Some people think that helps I don't want to add too much pressure to myself. I think each night I wanna take it game by game. If I go out, have a good game, awesome. I'm gonna forget about it that night but learn from mistakes I did make and move on to the next one and try to correct those. That's simply how it is. I don't have a goal of, 'Yeah, I want 10 goals, 20 goals.' That's just out of sight, out of mind. I'd rather focus on playing well every night, contributing to a team win, playing good defense first, being reliable. If I get a chance to play on the power play and score then, awesome, but I just want to play good reliable, defensive hockey. That's my goal here.
STRANG: Any one purchase you have been eying when that first NHL paycheck comes.
EKBLAD: I don't have one little thing. If I see something I want, I get it if I need it.
STRANG: No, not something you need. I mean something fun.
EKBLAD: [Smiling] Well I'm gonna need a car at some point. I like trucks. I like big trucks, so if I get a sort of Ford truck I can lift or get a Ford Raptor, that's one [I want].