Florida Panthers

Aaron Ekblad signs with Florida Panthers, will have chance to make team

With just a week before their prospects camp opens, the Panthers signed top draft pick Aaron Ekblad to a three-year, entry-level contract on Wednesday.

Ekblad, the first overall selection of the 2014 NHL Draft, is expected to make the Panthers roster out of training camp, although the team could still send him back to his junior team in Canada.

On Wednesday, the defenseman said he is going to make it so the Panthers don’t exercise that option.

“I’m very confident and believe in myself,” he said in a conference call.

“I believe I can be on this team on opening night, and I’m confident in that. I’m ready, and I couldn’t be in a better position than where I am.”

The Panthers have revamped their defense, with Brian Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and Dylan Olsen the only full-timers returning from last season.

Florida signed veteran Willie Mitchell and will have young defensemen Colby Robak and Alex Petrovic playing for spots as well.

It was learned on Tuesday that Florida invited former Tampa Bay and Colorado defenseman Shane O’Brien to camp on a tryout.

If Ekblad looks like he’s ready to play at the NHL level, the Panthers aren’t going to stand in his way.

“We’re hopeful, and we think he can,” general manager Dale Tallon said.

“He’s big and strong enough, has the ability. It’s just adjusting to the pace. Timing is everything. Moving from junior to the NHL is a big step, especially on the back end defensively.”

Said Ekblad: “I have a lot of hard work left to make the team, and I’m excited about it. I couldn’t be happier to be put in this position.

“I know Florida is going to have a good team this year and in the future. I’m excited to be part of that process.”

Ekblad said Wednesday that he had healed from a concussion sustained last month, with Tallon saying he has been medically cleared to practice, although the team might bring him along slowly through prospects camp.

“We’ll take our time because it’s a marathon, so we’ll be careful,” Tallon said.

“He seems to be 100 percent, so we’ll see how it goes in the first few days of camp. If he’s willing and healthy, we’ll let him go. But we’ll be careful.”

Florida opens training camp Sept. 19 in Coral Springs.

O’Brien, 31, is the only player Florida has formally invited to camp so far.

“Shane [O’Brien] gives us some size and toughness,” Tallon said.

“He called me and was sort of begging for the opportunity to come and play for us. … We’ll give him a shot and see what happens. You can never have too many tough defensemen.”

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