Aaron Ekblad said he wants to be with the Florida Panthers “forever. I never want to leave South Florida.”
After signing a massive eight-year contract worth a reported $60 million on Friday, it’s possible he might not have to.
The Panthers, who already made a splash in free agency by trading for and signing defenseman Keith Yandle, locked up their emerging superstar for the foreseeable future on the first day they were allowed to make the extension official.
The eight-year contract is the maximum the Panthers were allowed to offer.
“It’s a huge deal for both sides,” Ekblad, 20, said Friday afternoon.
Ekblad has one year remaining on the original three-year deal he signed after being the top pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, so he’s contractually committed to the Panthers until the end of the 2024-25 season.
Florida is also interested in extending Jonathan Huberdeau, Reilly Smith and Vincent Trocheck to long-term deals.
Sasha Barkov and Nick Bjugstad were previously locked up with six-year contracts.
“For this kind of thing to happen, for me, is really exciting,” Ekblad said. “It’s really great the Florida Panthers and the ownership have shown this kind of commitment toward what I want to do and be a part of this team. I’ve always expressed my interest in wanting to be here for a very long time. I’m very happy to be here.”
Said general manager Tom Rowe: “It’s no secret this is a guy we want in the fold for a very long time.’’
News of Ekblad’s big deal leaked late Thursday night, coming before the start of the NHL’s annual free agent frenzy.
The Panthers got in on the fun early, getting goalie James Reimer with a five-year pact worth $17 million almost immediately after the noon starting time.
Reimer, 28, spent the first six seasons of his career in Toronto but was traded to the eventual Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks last season.
He said being so close to the Stanley Cup fueled his desire to continue with a contending team.
“They’ve grown, especially recently,” Reimer said of the Panthers. “The last couple of years I think they’ve really taken a step, and they’ve gotten better and better. I know playing them last year they were a good team. …
“When you have a core like this, you’re only going to grow and you’re only going to get better. I played against them and saw first-hand the talent they have. I’ll now be fortunate to have it in front of me.”
Ekblad figures to be a big part of Florida’s success moving forward and said he thinks something big is happening with the Panthers.
“We’re trending up,” Ekblad said. “I’m definitely proud of what we’ve done so far, but I’m not satisfied.”
With the Panthers trading for Colorado’s Reto Berra last week, the signing of Reimer came as a surprise. Rowe, however, said the acquisition of Berra was an insurance move with Reimer being a long-time target.
Although Reimer will back up Roberto Luongo, at least initially, the Panthers hope he eventually takes over the starting spot.
Luongo, 37, is coming off a terrific season and is signed for the next six years. But he had offseason hip surgery, and Rowe insinuated that he might not be ready for the start of the season. If Luongo isn’t 100 percent at the start of the season, Florida would go in with Reimer as the starter and Berra as the backup.
When Luongo is healthy and playing, Berra could be sent to Florida’s AHL affiliate in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The Panthers also signed wingers Colton Sceviour and Jonathan Marchessault to two-year contracts to help out their third and fourth lines.
Sceviour, 27, spent the past seven seasons playing in the Dallas Stars organization. Marchessault, 25, will likely be on Florida’s fourth line after playing in 45 games with the Lightning last season.
Marchessault had played in just four NHL games prior to last year.
With the Panthers adding Yandle and Reimer, free agents Brian Campbell and Al Montoya moved on.
Campbell, who was offered both one- and two-year contracts by the Panthers, signed a one-year deal worth $2 million to return to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Campbell, 37, didn’t miss a single game with the Panthers after being acquired in a trade with Chicago at the 2011 draft.
Montoya, who was great as Luongo’s backup last season, signed with Montreal for $950,000.
Of the 20 players on the Panthers’ opening-night lineup last season, seven won’t be there in 2016.
“We love what [Campbell] did for us, but It’s time to move on,’’ Rowe said. “It’s time to get some new people in here and prepare for the new season.’’