Panthers D-man Aaron Ekblad playing beyond his years

At 19 years old, Aaron Ekblad is in his second NHL season. Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad swears he's still a kid even if his beard, his conduct and his hockey ability make him appear older.

Ekblad is still just 19 years old and one of the NHL's youngest players. He's one of 12 teenagers to appear in an NHL game this season. Despite his age, Ekblad does feel more experienced and more comfortable after going through his rookie season, for which he won the Calder Trophy.

Ekblad discussed the progression he's made, the expectations placed on the Panthers this season, the pressures put on 2015 No. 1 overall pick Connor McDavid and more.

Scott Powers: Is the second season different for you?

Aaron Ekblad: Way different. Even the kind of attitude I had coming into training camp. I mean, last year I was real nervous. I didn't want to make any plays that were big mistakes. Now, this year, I'm kind of more excited, more anxious to get out there and make plays and try new things. Much more confident in myself, I think.

Powers: Were there difficult lessons you learned during last season?

Ekblad: Oh, yeah. Little plays you can make in junior that you can't make in the NHL. That's kind of the biggest thing. There's tons of plays you can make in junior that almost seem easy, and then you come up here they're tough. It's a tough league, and you can't make some plays.

Powers: Looking back, what impact did living with Willie Mitchell have on you last season?

Ekblad: One of the best experiences of my life thus far. After 15, 18 years, however long he's played in the league or been around it, he's got a lot of knowledge. ... You know that I need to know how to write a check; I had never written a check before. The first one I had to write to my agent. So, he helped me with that kind of stuff. After games, just learning the defensive side of the game. Obviously the defensive side is one of the most important. You have forwards who score goals; you have defense who play defense. I like to take pride in being able to jump in the rush and score goals and make plays and stuff like that, but I know my defensive game needs a lot of work. Willie was pivotal in helping with that.

Powers: People often talk about you being mature beyond your years. Are you acting like yourself or are you protecting your real personality as a 19-year-old?

Ekblad: I don't protect myself from being my age. I act my age all the time. I love to have fun. I'm a little kid at heart, but obviously the situation I'm in, the situation we're in as hockey players, we have to be mature. We have to know how to be mature, respectful and all that good stuff. I have fun. I have my times where I can let loose and enjoy myself, obviously with people who I trust and are confident that won't betray me.

Powers: Is it about where and when?

Ekblad: Where and when, for sure. There's obviously a time where you're going to let loose and have fun, just like every other person in the world. At some point, you got to come to work and treat it like work and really just be a professional, I guess. That's what a lot of guys say -- be a pro.

Powers: Has social media changed for you in that respect as you've become a pro hockey player?

Ekblad: When I was younger, my dad always kind of pushed me to, "Make sure you don't do anything stupid, don't do anything stupid, don't do anything stupid." So, for the most part, I was taught pretty well how to handle myself on social media, stuff like that. I was never one to do anything that I know could never be taken down.

Powers: Was it easier back then to look at the interaction from your followers?

Ekblad: More scrutiny and stuff like that? I mean, after every game there's always someone who is going to be negative, always someone who is going to be positive. At the end, I'm my hardest critic, so whoever's negative I'm going to be much harder on me than they are. In the end, I push myself the hardest, and that's all that matters.

Powers: Obviously social media can lead to some strange topics. There's a lot of talk about your beard on Twitter. Do you pay attention to that type of thing?

Ekblad: I read it just because I kind of think it's good to know what people are saying about you in that situation. Hopefully, it's mostly good things. Whether it's about my beard or whatever, I don't care. It's all in good fun.

Powers: You're friends with Connor McDavid, a fellow No. 1 overall pick. Did you try to give him any advice as he entered this season?

Ekblad: He's got a lot of friends. He's got a lot of people he looks up to. I'm just one of those friends. If he would ever come to me, then I'd be there with a helping hand. But he's with his team, and same thing as I lean on guys before, he's going to lean on his teammates in Edmonton. He's just a great player. He's doing unbelievable things. He doesn't need any help. He's an unbelievable player.

Powers: Do you feel he's under a different microscope than you were last season?

Ekblad: He's getting compared to Gretzky and Lemieux and Crosby. I'm just playing hockey here in South Florida. Maybe a little bit different, yeah.

Powers: Are you glad you were in your rookie class [rather] than this year's one?

Ekblad: Two high-scoring forwards, I think they would have went ahead of me. They're two great players -- [Jack] Eichel and McDavid. It would be different, for sure. They're way better at their positions than I think I am. I just like to go out there and have a shot to shut them down whenever we play against Buffalo and Edmonton.

Powers: Do you believe expectations have changed for the Panthers in the past year?

Ekblad: Big time. Everyone says we were close last year. We were ... seven points out of a playoff spot. I think we all kind of remind ourselves of that every day so we push ourselves harder at this time of the year to set ourselves up for the end of the year and that playoff push.