Aaron Ekblad being forced to leave the World Cup, especially with what was rumored to be a concussion, was just about the worst news the Panthers could have gotten ahead of the regular season, but the worry has subsided ahead of the campaign as Ekblad has been cleared to return to the Florida lineup.
More than a week after leaving Team North America and returning to Panthers camp, Ekblad, 20, has been cleared to return to action, according to TSN’s Darren Dreger, and Ekblad was right back into action Thursday morning when Florida took the ice. While a concussion was the initial report surrounding the nature of Ekblad’s injury, it was later determined that he was suffering from a neck injury.
It was clear the Panthers brought Ekblad back to training camp as a precaution, more than anything, and members of the front office and coaching staff, including coach Gerard Gallant, didn’t seem too worried about Ekblad’s injury upon his return.
"He is going to be fine," Gallant said this past weekend, via NHL.com’s Alain Poupart. "You see him out there skating already. I think it was a little scary, but he feels real good. He's going to [skate] and see how he feels, but everything looks good."
Having a healthy Ekblad back in the lineup is going to be of paramount importance for the Panthers, and his role is almost certain to expand this coming season. Though he has averaged nearly 22 minutes of ice time per game over the past two seasons, the departures of Brian Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson almost certainly means that more minutes are coming Ekblad’s way, even despite the additions of Jason Demers and Keith Yandle on the back end.
The 2015-16 post-season is as clear an indication as any of just how important Ekblad has become in Florida. Over the course of the Panthers’ first-round series against the New York Islanders, a series the Cats lost despite being the favorite, Ekblad averaged upwards of 25 minutes of ice time per game and saw as much as 32:36 of ice time in Game 5’s double-overtime loss.
Ekblad was rewarded this past off-season with a monster eight-year, $60-million contract extension from the Panthers, and he’ll enter this campaign as the No. 1 defenseman in Florida despite the fact he’s also the youngest player on the entire roster.
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