Florida Panthers

Top-pick Aaron Ekblad excited about home debut with Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad steals the puck from Nashville Predators left wing Gabriel Bourque in the first period of a preseason game Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn.
Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad steals the puck from Nashville Predators left wing Gabriel Bourque in the first period of a preseason game Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. AP

In years past, the Panthers have given their highest draft picks plenty of playing time throughout their first preseason.

Last year, Aleksander Barkov played in four of seven preseason games after being the second-overall pick the previous June.

Jonathan Huberdeau played in three of Florida’s six preseason games in 2011; Erik Gudbranson got in all six games the season before.

Through the first four exhibition games this year, Aaron Ekblad — the NHL’s top draft selection in June — has played in only one.

He will play in his second Thursday night when the Panthers play host to the Lightning at BB&T Center.

Coach Gerard Gallant said Ekblad had a “minor tweak” after Saturday’s game against the Predators, which is why he was held out Monday in Dallas.

“We want him 100 percent when he’s out there,” Gallant said of Ekblad, who sustained a concussion in August but played in all three games of Florida’s rookie tournament in Nashville.

“We want to play him in the home game and we don’t want to play him too much. We’ll decide on the next one. We have to see a lot of guys and know what he’s going to be. He has some time and has already played a lot of hockey.”

Ekblad, 18, didn’t think he played his best in his preseason debut Saturday but is looking forward to playing in his first home game Wednesday.

“I’m just happy to get the opportunity to play in any games for this team,” Ekblad said. “I’m still trying to work my way into it. … I think I’ve picked up my play in the past few days.”

Veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell, who has been partnered with Ekblad, said he sees plenty of potential and will continue to help guide the way.

“He’s a good young player who needs to see more action,” Mitchell said. “He wasn’t happy with his first game and I don’t think anyone is. You feel like crap, don’t have your legs underneath you yet.

“I’m excited to get in a few more games with him. My thought is a young player like that should be playing nonstop.”

Although the Panthers are expected to make at least eight roster moves in the coming days before the season begins, Ekblad is not likely to be one of them.

Florida can play Ekblad in up to nine regular-season games before deciding whether to keep him with the big squad or send him back to his junior team in Canada.

If Ekblad plays in a 10th game, he could still be sent back, but he would have burned a year off his contract.

“He’s an 18-year-old kid and we know he’s going to be a great hockey player,” Gallant said. “But this is a big step. A lot of people can attest that playing defense at 18 in the NHL means you have to be a special player. We’re going to go game-by-game and see how he gets along. We’re not going to rush anyone.”

Thursday: Lightning at Panthers

When/where: 7:30 p.m., BB&T Center, Sunrise.

TV/radio: None.

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