By Tim Reynolds
SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Panthers have their first win of the season: Aaron Ekblad has pronounced himself ready for training camp.
The top-line defenseman will be on the ice when the Panthers formally begin practice Thursday, just short of six months since he broke his left leg in a scary on-ice incident. Ekblad has been skating for several weeks and does not expect to be limited as camp begins.
“I’ve never been so excited for a training camp or an exhibition game in my career so far,” Ekblad said. “I’m really excited to get going and really test all my rehab and my preparation.”
The Panthers will practice Thursday, Friday and Saturday. They open preseason play with a doubleheader at home against Nashville on Sunday and, barring a setback, Ekblad will likely play in one of those games.
Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar said Ekblad — in between deep-sea fishing trips on his boat to land some yellowfin tuna in the Bahamas, along with some golf outings this summer — has been locked on his rehab and getting ready for a season where Florida has expectations of a deep, title-contending playoff run.
“His attitude has been great,” Weegar said. “I know for a fact he’s been dialed in on getting back to 100%, and I think it’s even more than that. He’s more than ready. He looks phenomenal out on the ice. He’s going to be another key guy, another leader for us.”
Ekblad got hurt on March 28, during the second period of a game in Dallas. Ekblad took a hit and fell very awkwardly, screaming in pain on the ice. An air cast was eventually put on his left leg and Ekblad was taken off the ice on a stretcher.
Surgery followed the next day, and the rehab process was predictably arduous: He could do nothing for the first couple of weeks while waiting for stitches to come out, and it was almost three months before he was permitted to even start skating again.
“Obviously, it’s not perfect,” Ekblad said. “I continue to work on it every single day, but I’m happy with all of my progressions to this point and I feel very confident that I can reach the same level of play and exceed my level of play from last season.”
Ekblad was a major part of Florida’s turnaround last season, even while missing the final 21 games of the regular season and then the team’s first-round series against eventual Stanley Cup winner Tampa Bay. He had 11 goals and 11 assists, logged an average of more than 25 minutes per game on the ice — a career-high — and tied a career-best with six goals on the power play.
Ekblad said watching the Panthers in the playoffs and not being able to participate was “brutal” and “gut-wrenching.”
“Sitting around and watching is not something I’ve ever done in my career. I’ve never had a major injury like this, so it was different for me and it wasn’t fun by any means,” Ekblad said. “And it was a long road to recovery. But seeing it from a different perspective and watching the game, maybe I learned some things. Ultimately, it is what it is, and it happened and it’s over and it’s a new year and hopefully, we can repeat some of that success and bring it further.”