SUNRISE, Fla. – Whether or not it was planned that way, Aaron Ekblad being the first player to speak on the Florida Panthers virtual Media Day felt like a proper way to kick off the new season.
For all the hype and attention surrounding the Panthers right now, Ekblad almost seems like the forgotten guy.
Sasha Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are reaching superstar levels and starting to receive a somewhat appropriate amount of recognition (but still not nearly enough in my opinion).
Sam Bennett’s ridiculous start with the Panthers last season and the team’s acquisition of Sam Reinhart over the summer are also on all the hockey radars out there.
And let’s not forget future Hall of Famer Joe Thornton deciding that signing with Florida would give him the best shot at winning a Stanley Cup this season. That sentence alone must be difficult for many of our friends north of the border to digest.
But alas, there isn’t much talk about Ekblad.
His 2020-21 season, as you surely remember, was cut short in late March when he suffered a fractured bone in his lower leg during a road game in Dallas.
At the time, Ekblad was in the midst of his best year as a pro.
His name couldn’t be mentioned without someone bringing up the 25-year-old being among the favorites for the Norris Trophy, which goes to the NHL’s top defenseman every season.
He was on pace for a career high in goals and coming into his own as a power play specialist while continuing to evolve as one of the top defenders in the game.
All that, and the Panthers were looking better than they ever had during his career. Florida appeared to be not only a lock for a playoff spot, but they were also competing for a possible division crown.
Then suddenly Ekbald’s season was over, and he joined the rest of us as spectators, anxiously waiting and hoping to see the team enjoy that illusive playoff success.
“It was brutal. It was gut wrenching,” he said. “Sitting around and watching is not something I’ve ever done in my career. I’ve never had a major injury like this.”
The injury itself was a hard thing to watch, as was the reality of knowing Ekblad’s spectacular season was over.
What could he have achieved, and what heights could the team have reached, had he not been injured?
Ekblad was not shy about admitting that having to sit out and watch the Panthers’ playoff push, and subsequent first round exit, only added fuel his fire.
“I’m very hungry and excited,” he said. “I missed out on playing with a lot of the new pieces we acquired last year and I’m really excited to play with those guys, as well as the guys we picked up in the summertime.”
Ekblad spent the offseason rehabilitating his injury, and now he’s back, anxious to pick up where he left off and ready to help this Panthers squad reach its ultimate potential.
While he wouldn’t go so far as to say he was 100 percent back to normal (99.9 percent was as high as he’d go), Ekblad made it clear that he was chomping at the bit to get back on the ice with his teammates.
“I’ve never been so excited for a training camp or an exhibition game in my career,” he said Wednesday. “I’m really excited to get going and really test all my rehab and my preparation.”
Ekblad has been training with various teammates at the Ice Den in Coral Springs for several weeks, pushing himself to be as prepared as possible for when camp begins on Thursday.
Another player who has been doing a lot of skating at the Ice Den lately is Panthers captain Sasha Barkov.
He returned to South Florida earlier this month after spending his offseason in Finland, as he always does.
The big topic surrounding Barkov for the past few months has been that of a possible contract extension.
As it stands, Barkov’s contract status remains the same, with one year remaining at $5.9 million.
His next deal will pay him quite a bit more.
During the summer, Barkov’s agent Todd Diamond and Panthers GM Bill Zito had preliminary discussions regarding a contract extension, and as recently as early September, sources indicated to Local 10 News that both sides were optimistic an agreement would eventually be reached.
Barkov won’t be a free agent until next summer, so there is still more than enough time to iron out the details on a new deal.
During Wednesday’s virtual Media Day, Barkov indicated that steps were being made in the right direction.
“I think we’re for sure making some progress,” he said. “It’s all good.”
Barkov wouldn’t go into further details about the discussions, saying he’d let his people handle it.
The 26-year-old is entering his ninth season in the NHL. They’ve all been with the Panthers, the team that drafted him second overall in 2013.
South Florida is the only place in North America that Barkov has called home, and he was asked about the idea of playing his entire career in a Panthers sweater.
“Right now, the only thing I think about is playing for the Florida Panthers,” he said. “I love playing here, I love what we’ve started building here.”
ADDITIONAL MEDIA DAY NOTES
The 2021-22 season will be Joe Thornton’s 24th in the NHL, spanning eight years in Boston, 15 in San Jose and then last season with the Maple Leafs.
Needless to say, Thornton has been through more than a few media days.
He admitted on Wednesday that he doesn’t really feel the need to do much in the way of preparation, and that actually makes a lot of sense.
There aren’t many questions that could catch Thornton by surprise, and dealing with my colleagues and I in the South Florida media isn’t exactly the same as the grilling he received while playing in Boston or Toronto.
That being the case, he wasn’t shy about laying out his Media Day preparations when asked.
“Just get up and do it, it’s really no big deal at this point,” he said. “Now I just comb the beard and go.”
Sam Reinhart showed up for his Media Day Zoom wearing a brand-new Panthers No. 13 jersey, which was answering a question that would surely have been asked during the Zoom call.
That’s because his Panthers number had yet to be revealed and was something of a mystery heading into training camp.
Throughout his career, starting well before he made it to the NHL, Reinhart always wore No. 23. That was the number worn by his father, Paul Reinhart, who played 11 seasons in the NHL and was known as one of the better defensemen around at the time.
After he was traded to Florida over the summer, Reinhart said he had no intention of asking for the number from Carter Verhaeghe, who was already wearing No. 23 for the Panthers.
Regarding his new jersey number, Reinhart said Wednesday that he’s “always loved the number 13″ and he understands wearing that particular number is a big deal in South Florida.
“To follow a former club legend in Mark Pysyk that wore the number before me, it’s pretty exciting to have that opportunity myself,” Reinhart said with a laugh.
Pysyk, one of the absolute best guys that has come through the Panthers locker room over the years, was a teammate of Reinhart’s back in Buffalo, before Pysyk was acquired by Florida via trade in 2016.
Reinhart did admit that he “absolutely” understood the weight that comes with wearing Dan Marino’s old number, even if it was on a different team in a different sport.
But still…respect to the Prius.