Aaron Ekblad will play in his ninth NHL game on Saturday night. What the Panthers will do afterward is pretty obvious.
Although Florida has the option of sending Ekblad back to his junior team in Canada after Saturday’s game, the 18-year-old defenseman isn’t going anywhere.
General manager Dale Tallon wouldn’t come right out and say Ekblad will remain with the Panthers for the remainder of the season on Friday, but he made it clear that he has no other plans for the top pick in the 2014 draft.
“He really picked up his game once the season started,’’ Tallon said. “He’s a gamer and, boy, he has been very good. He’s been a big part of our solid defense. We’ll decide after [Saturday], but it looks pretty good for him. He’s played junior a long time, and he’s a man now. It probably doesn’t make any sense for him to go back. There’s a good chance he’s going to be here.’’
Ekblad has been living in a Coral Springs hotel with a handful of teammates since training camp although he’ll start looking for more permanent living arrangements soon.
The Panthers have relied on Ekblad a lot this season. Through the first eight games, he has logged more than 20 minutes a night in every game since the opener in Tampa.
Despite that, Ekblad said he’s not looking ahead and is taking Saturday’s game as any other.
On Friday, Buffalo sent Sam Reinhart, who was picked second behind Ekblad, back to his junior team after his nine-game stint.
“I think I’m playing well right now,’’ Ekblad said. “I have some great guys to lean on and I feel good. I’ve been playing some important situations, getting every opportunity. Obviously it’s something in the back of my mind, but they’ll tell me soon.’’
Brian Campbell has been paired up with Ekblad since the start of the season, and the two have played extremely well together.
Campbell leads the Panthers in ice time with an average of 24:01 per night, and Ekblad isn’t far behind averaging 21:56 — fourth-most on the team and second-most among all NHL rookies.
Campbell said no one on the Panthers expects anything less than having Ekblad around for the remainder of the season, and due to Ekblad’s play, no one has even thought about the NHL’s nine-game “try-out’’ rule.
If Florida were to send Ekblad back to junior hockey, he would still have three years left on his entry-level contract. When he plays in his 10th game Tuesday in Boston, Ekblad’s contract officially kicks in.
“What’s the point in even talking about it anymore? After the second game you kind of knew it was a non-issue,’’ Campbell said.
“This ninth-game thing isn’t a big deal in his case. He’s been great, really good. I never saw him play before, but he has surprised me a little in how good he is. Wait until he’s 21 or 22. It’s pretty obvious we made the right move in taking him.’’
Said coach Gerard Gallant: “We haven’t really talked about it. The kid has been playing over 20 minutes, playing every situation. I didn’t expect him to be as good as he is at this level. He may have some ups and downs later in the season, I don’t know, but so far after eight games, it’s been all positive. The kid has been outstanding.’’
The Panthers haven’t had to deal with injury issues very much this season, but that all changed on Thursday.
Three players were hurt during Florida’s 2-1 victory over Arizona, including Brandon Pirri who sustained a concussion after taking an elbow to the head from Keith Yandle.
Pirri, Sean Bergenheim (lower body), Aleksander Barkov (lower body) and Dave Bolland (groin) all missed Friday’s practice in Coral Springs. Bolland will miss his fifth consecutive game Saturday.
Because of the injuries, Florida called up center Vincent Trocheck and winger Rocco Grimaldi.
Grimaldi, who spent the past three seasons at the University of North Dakota, could make his NHL debut against the Flyers.
“Things happen, but fortunately for us, we’re getting deeper,’’ Tallon said. “We have good, young assets in the minors and have some guys here now. It takes at least 30 guys and in our case over the years, even more. We’re not going to lose guys for a long time, so we’re fine.’’
Said Gallant: “We’ve been healthy all year and now we just need to keep moving on. There’s no excuses. We have guys who can come up and play for us.’’
▪ Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, a native of Pembroke Pines, won’t get to play in front of his family and friends Saturday at BB&T Center after all.
The first South Florida-raised player to appear in the NHL, Gostisbehere was sent back to Philadelphia’s AHL team after Friday’s workout in Sunrise.
Gostisbehere, 21, made his NHL debut last Saturday against Detroit.
“I knew it was coming,” Gostisbehere told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It was nothing I didn’t expect. I mean, it’s going to happen. I’m a young guy. ... My time will come.”
Saturday: Flyers at Panthers
When/where: 7 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise.
TV/radio: FSNF; WQAM 560.
The series: Philadelphia leads 46-30-7.
Noteworthy: Former Lightning star Vinny Lecavalier will be back in the Flyers’ lineup after missing the past seven games with an injured left ankle. Lecavalier has 71 points and 27 goals in 81 games against the Panthers.