SUNRISE — Just three games into the 2022-23 season, the Florida Panthers find themselves without star defenseman Aaron Ekblad for a third straight season.
Ekblad left the Panthers’ 5-3 loss to the Boston Bruins on Monday with a lower-body injury following Patrice Bergeron’s go-ahead goal.
He was placed on long-term injured reserve shortly thereafter.
This is the third lower-body injury in the last 19 months for Ekblad after he suffered two injuries that kept him out for the end of the regular season in March of 2021 and 2022.
While there was no timetable given for his return, the injury is not expected to be season-ending and is not related to the knee/ankle injuries sustained in the past.
”Obviously, we are concerned about for him as a person first,” Panthers general manager Bill Zito said.
”But he will be back. It is not a season-ending thing. We have every reason to believe he will be back and 100 percent, this is just something that happens in the normal course.”
Ekblad was in contention for the Norris Trophy, which is awarded to the league’s best defenseman, before he went down with injury in each of the last two seasons.
He led all defensemen in goals in 2021 and ranked in the top five in goals and points among defensemen in 2022 before his season abruptly ended.
For a third-straight season, he is seemingly knocked out of contention for the award.
That does not seem to be fazing him mentally.
“I could have talked to him, but by the time I got to talk to him he was working out,” Zito said.
”He is about as mentally strong of a person as there is. I’m sure he is angry and sad, too. He is human, but he is a pretty strong guy and my understanding of it is that it’s something that is not an ‘if’ it is a ‘when’ he will come back. These things happen, he is a resilient guy and he is a big part of our team. He will continue to be when he is not on the ice.”
Ekblad being placed on LTIR gives Florida $7.5 million in cap relief but they are not expected to make a major move to fill his void.
He is expected to return soon enough to where the move is not needed.
Instead, the cap-strapped Panthers were able to call-up Lucas Carlsson and Matt Kiersted from AHL Charlotte in the interim to fill in on defense.
”You have three guys in that lineup that would be fighting for one spot when everyone is healthy,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.
”They will be nervous before the game, which is good, they will be wired for the game but there is also a real competition in their mind. I expect them to play at a high level.”
When Ekblad went down over the past two seasons, MacKenzie Weegar and Gus Forsling each stepped up to become top-pair defensemen down the stretch.
Florida does not have that luxury now with Weegar gone.
Of Florida’s remaining defensemen, Forsling is the only one who has played significant top-pairing minutes.
Since being claimed off waivers by the Panthers in January 2021, the 26-year-old defenseman has 16 goals and 57 points in 117 games. He led all NHL defensemen in goals to finish off the 2021-22 season from the time Ekblad went down with injury.
”It seems like every year his role keeps growing and growing and he keeps taking on more and excelling,” Zito said.
”Now, he is going to get even more ice time and even more responsibility. He is kind of an understated guy but when it is time to play, he shows up and he just keeps getting better and better.”
For the time being, that new role is becoming the focal point of Florida’s defense.
“Do I think there is another level in him? Yes,” Zito said, when asked if he could handle that role.
But, for the time being, a lot of Florida’s success will come from the unit as a whole.
With Brandon Montour also missing for a second game in a row, Florida’s defense will consist of unproven entities in Carlsson, Kiersted and preseason waiver claim Josh Mahura.
If the Panthers are going to survive Ekblad’s absence, they will need those guys to step up.
”The Florida Panthers are going to have to win as a team,” Zito said.
“Everything we do is going to be as a team. Even last year in the regular season, we had plent of individuals who excelled but we were a team and that is where our success is going to come from the back end.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- Tickets: CLICK HERE
- TV: TNT
- Radio: WKIS 99.9-FM 2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Florida won 3-0
- All-time regular season series: Philadelphia leads 55-36-6, 7 ties