Among the dozens of young hockey players skating around the Panthers training facility Monday afternoon, Aaron Ekblad stood out.
Unlike all but one other player, Ekblad has a single digit on his back. Ekblad's No. 5 will likely remain with him not only through this development camp but through training camp, into the upcoming season and beyond. It will also, no doubt, end up on the backs of many fans.
While the majority of those partaking in this camp — almost all wearing high double-digits — will be back in juniors or playing college hockey this fall, Ekblad expects to stay right where he is.
Being the first overall selection in the NHL draft brings many perks — not just being able to select the number you wear.
It also gives Ekblad the true opportunity to make it to the NHL at the age of 18.
“It's what I do with those opportunities,’’ Ekblad said after skating at the Panthers' training facility for the first time on Monday.
“There are a series of milestones and I have to perform and prove that I'm ready at each one of them. ... I’m obviously going to get the chance, but I have to prove myself. I can't rest on my laurels, rest on where I was drafted. I consider all of us as equals.''
The Panthers had flirted with the idea of trading the top pick in last month's draft but general manager Dale Tallon didn't get enough to make him give up the rights to Ekblad.
Tallon loves Ekblad's upside and ability to play older than his years.
Although defensemen take longer to develop than forwards because of the intricacies of the position, the Panthers believe Ekblad is going to be able to handle it.
Bryan McCabe, the former Florida captain, knows about the pressures Ekblad is facing. McCabe started his NHL career as a defenseman with the Islanders when he was 20. He also became the youngest captain in the league by age 22.
“He's a kid in a man's body but is very confident and well-rounded in his game,” said McCabe, who works in player development for the Panthers.
“He's very grounded and humble and doesn't act like a first overall pick. He's going through the grind with everyone else. ... He has handled the pressure thus far, there's no reason to think he won't now. He is very mature for his age.''
Ekblad said he won't take the opportunity the Panthers are giving him for granted. Florida is going to give Ekblad every chance to make the team out of training camp, but even if he does that, the battle isn't over.
The team could allow Ekblad the chance to make the opening-night roster, but still send him back to his junior team in Canada after nine games.
Tallon said Ekblad's play will determine where he ends the upcoming season.
“We'll have a good, long look at him at training camp,” Tallon said Monday. “If he's ready, he's ready. If not, well, [Jonathan] Huberdeau went back. Guys come back better players.
“But if he's ready, we're keeping him, no doubt. We're still thinking the same thing about this being a marathon. We're getting closer with each draft.”
Said Ekblad: “I have the opportunity and I just need to run with it.’’
The Panthers will have three full-time assistant coaches this season, as Tallon said the team hired former head coaches Mark Morris and Mike Kelly to join Gerard Gallant's staff.
Tallon had already announced that former Florida center John Madden would return as an assistant coach.
Brian Skrudland, who joined Peter Horachek's staff last year when Kevin Dineen was fired, will return to his role as Florida's director of player development.
Morris, 56, was recently fired as coach of the AHL's Manchester Monarchs after eight seasons.
As head of the top minor-league team of the Kings, Morris was instrumental in helping young players develop into eventual Stanley Cup champions.
“He's good at developing young defensemen, and that was very important to us,’’ Tallon said. “We have a lot of good, young defensemen in our system.”
Kelly was Gallant's assistant with Saint John in Canadian junior hockey. When Gallant left to be an assistant coach with the Canadiens, Kelly took over as head coach and general manager of the Sea Dogs. Kelly, 54, was fired by Saint John last fall.
“[Kelly and Gallant] had success in Saint John together and are very comfortable coaching together,’’ Tallon said. “We have a top-notch coaching staff.’’
Goalie coach Robb Tallas will return for his sixth season with the Panthers.