SUNRISE — Paul Maurice admits now that he was pretty worried about how his Florida Panthers would fare with Aaron Ekblad out of the lineup.
On Saturday afternoon, Ekblad makes his return.
Ekblad has been out since sustaining a groin pull on Oct. 17 in Boston, Florida placing him on long-term injured reserve two days later.
After skating with the team for the past week, Ekblad says he 100 percent ready to come back — and so he shall — today against the Edmonton Oilers.
“I am extremely excited, these things are the worst. Sitting out sucks,” Ekblad said. “I am extremely proud of the way this team played and certain guys stepped up in big ways and you saw their true colors. It has been fun to watch but it will be more fun to get back in the action.”
Ekblad had high praise for his teammates who stepped up in his absence, from Brandon Montour to Gus Forsling and Josh Mahura.
Maurice said while he is happy to have Ekblad back, he was thrilled with how his team responded and “survived” losing such a key player.
”I would never come out and tell you that I was worried, but you take him out of your lineup and he is such an important part,’’ Maurice said. “We learned a whole bunch of things along the way. We added Mahura and learned a lot about him, he and Gudas can be a real solid pair. Montour’s minutes were driven up and we learned Kiersted is a player who can play meaningful minutes. It was a good experience but we don’t need to go through it again.”
With Ekblad back in the lineup, the Panthers had to do make some moves — and will make some changes on the ice today.
Before Ekblad went on LTIR, the Panthers’ roster had to be set at 20 but with his money off the cap (albeit temporarily), Florida was able to add some additional players as well as sign Eric Staal to a one-year contract.
In order to activate Ekblad three players — Mat Kiersted, Lucas Carlsson and Aleksi Heponiemi — were sent back to AHL Charlotte.
To get cap compliant, Florida placed Rudolfs Balcers on waivers Friday.
Balcers will either get claimed by another team today or assigned to Charlotte. Either way, the Panthers will be able to activate Ekblad off LTIR then.
As far as the on-ice product goes, Ekblad is back on the top power play unit.
With Florida’s defensive pairings playing so well and Maurice not wanting to upset things, Ekblad will start with Marc Staal.
“I played with Willie Mitchell and Brian Campbell back in the day and he reminds me of those guys,” Ekblad said. “Super solid, good first-pass guy with a lot of knowledge about the game. It is endless learning from those guys.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
EDMONTON OILERS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida; ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Split 1-1
- All-time regular season series: Edmonton leads 21-14-0, 3 ties