Panthers ‘expect’ All-Star defenseman Aaron Ekblad to return from injury this week

Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers skates against the Boston Bruins during the second period at TD Garden on October 17, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) (Maddie Meyer, 2022 Getty Images)

SUNRISE, Fla. – The first few weeks of the NHL season has been a bit of a mixed bag for the Florida Panthers.

Thirteen games in, the Panthers hold a respectable but not great 7-5-1 record.

They haven’t won more than two in a row, haven’t lost more than two in a row and have alternated wins and losses in each of their past six games.

A potential big boost to Florida’s lineup appears to be on the horizon in the form of All-Star defenseman Aaron Ekblad.

Out since the third game of the season with a lower-body injury, Ekblad has been seen on the ice for the past couple weeks working his way back to full health.

He was placed on Long-Term IR before the Panthers had played a home game, which meant he couldn’t return until 10 games and 24 days had both passed.

Florida’s 5-3 win in Anaheim on Sunday night was the team’s tenth without their ace rearguard, but the 24-day requirement won’t be met until Thursday or Friday of this week.

It’s no secret that the Saturday, Nov. 12 game against Edmonton was the target date for Ekblad to return and seeing him on the ice so much recently has only fed into the idea that he would be ready when that day arrived.

Barring any setbacks, it looks like Ekblad will, in fact, good to go.

“We expect Aaron to be back in the lineup Saturday,” Panthers Head Coach Paul Maurice said following Tuesday’s practice at FLA Live Arena.

This is great news for Florida, as it would be for any team. Ekblad is a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman that impacts every facet of the game.

Considering he’s been on the ice and seemingly amping up his preparation to get back in the lineup, the hope is that when he returns, Ekblad will look like his usual, elite self.

Prior to the injury, albeit with just a 2.5 game sample size, Ekblad looked off.

He wasn’t playing with the usual grace and ease he generally shows when on top of his game, which is basically always with Ekblad.

Beyond the eye-test, his advanced metrics at even strength were not only the worst on the team, by far, but also the worst of his career.

It’s worth noting that the Panthers did have an extremely tough, physically demanding training camp and perhaps Ekblad wasn’t quite at 100 percent to start the season as a result.

Either way, the hope now is that the extended time off will be just what the doctor ordered to get Ekblad back to feeling, looking and playing like the elite superstar he’s grown into over the past few seasons.

In the meantime, Ekblad’s absence has been mitigated by not one, but several players stepping up and taking on a larger role.

Brandon Montour is playing perhaps the best hockey we’ve seen during his seven seasons in the NHL. He’s playing top pairing and top power play minutes and is currently averaging more than a point per game.

He’s got 12 points through 11 games, including two goals and two assists on the power play, and while it’s a small sample size, his possession metrics are the best of his career.

Gus Forsling continues to impress, and for me it’s the little things that he does so well and so consistently.

It’s how his stick always seems to be in the right place to break up a pass or knock a puck off someone’s blade, or how he shows absolutely no regard for his own wellbeing when blocking shot after shot, particularly on the penalty kill.

And speaking of Forsling - the waiver wire find of the century - how about the contributions from newcomer and waiver claim Josh Mahura?

To paraphrase the great Forrest Gump, Mahura and the Panthers are like peas and carrots. A great combination. A natural fit.

Snagged off the waiver wire from Anaheim after teams had to cut their rosters down ahead of Opening Night, Mahura has the wheels and the hands that make his transition to Florida’s back line a seemingly easy one.

His skating ability helps him keep a good gap and recover well after pushing the puck offensively, something he’s done well both with his puck skills and his hockey IQ, showing awareness to know when to go and when to hold off.

Remember, it was the foresight of the Panthers front office to see Mahura as a guy who would fit into their system that got him to Florida. When he was claimed, Ekblad was still healthy, and Matt Kiersted and Lucas Carlsson were both options to fill that role, not to mention the roster being squeezed due to being right up against the salary cap.

At the time, there wasn’t a need to make the move. You could argue there were more reasons not to do it than to pull the trigger. But boy are they glad they did.

When Elbkad returns, Kiersted and Carlsson will be candidates to be sent back to AHL Charlotte, as Florida will have to get below the cap once again.

Patric Hornqvist, who missed Sunday’s game in Anaheim after being injured the night before in Los Angeles, was seen skating before Tuesday’s practice.

He’s considered day-to-day with an upper-body injury, but Maurice said he’d have a better idea of Hornqvist’s availability closer to the weekend.

Even if there is any chance Hornqvist will need to miss extended time, placing him on IR wouldn’t help against the salary cap. Only when a player goes on LTIR does their salary not count against the cap.

Bottom line…while Ekblad’s return to the lineup is welcomed, it will mean the front office will need move some things around in order to get the team cap compliant.

About the Author:

David Dwork joined the WPLG Local 10 News team in August 2019. Born and raised in Miami-Dade County, David has covered South Florida sports since 2007.