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Aaron Ekblad healthy, ready to take next step with Florida Panthers

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Aaron Ekblad missed the end of last season after sustaining a leg injury in Dallas but he’s healthy and ready to help lead his team back to the playoffs this season. // Photo by Roger Topalian, 21st Century Photography (561) 488-0000

Aaron Ekblad is healthy and ready to roll, the Florida Panthers star defenseman saying Wednesday that he has “never been more excited for a training camp or an exhibition game in my career.”

Ekblad, of course, sustained a major injury during a game last March in Dallas, fracturing a bone in his leg.

There was some hope Ekblad could be healthy if the Panthers made it a few rounds into the playoffs but obviously Florida losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round ended that.

“I feel great, about 100 percent. I am cleared and ready to go,” Ekblad said Wednesday as the Panthers reported to training camp. “The rehab process was very long, grueling. There were some ups-and-downs through that, but we pushed pretty hard in case I was ready to come back for the playoffs. With the extra time, we were able to be detailed and diligent, take care of it the best we could.”

Ekblad has been skating now for months after being off his feet for the first six weeks after surgery.

Three months after surgery, Ekblad said he skated for the first time.

Once he got going, it became kind of a mundane routine as he worked his way back into game shape.

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“Rehab, skate, workout, home,’’ he said. ”I was on autopilot for a while.”

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The Panthers certainly missed having Ekblad on the ice. Last year was perhaps Ekblad’s best in his seven years in the NHL and he was almost certainly going to be a Norris Trophy finalists — if not the winner — had he stayed healthy.

And, of course, who knows where the Panthers may have ended up had Ekblad not gotten hurt.

Watching the Panthers make their run to the postseason and not be able to be a part of it sounds like it was extremely tough on Ekblad.

”It was brutal. It was gut-wrenching,” Ekblad said. “Sitting around watching was something I never had to do in my career. I never had a major injury like that. For me, it wasn’t fun by any means and it was a long road to recovery. Seeing it from a different perspective, maybe I learned some things. It is what it is. It happened, it’s over and it’s a new year. Hopefully we can repeat some of that success and take it even further.”

Even though Florida did right by itself thanks to players like MacKenzie Weegar and Gus Forsling stepping up — and going out and trading for Brandon Montour — but sometimes, there isn’t anything better than the real thing.

”Ekie is great,” said Weegar, who was Ekblad’s linemate throughout the year before taking over his spot on the right side after the injury. “We have been skating the past couple of weeks, got some golf in, had a few nice dinners. His attitude has been great.

“I know for a fact he has been dialed in on getting that ankle to 100 percent and I think it’s more than ready. He looks phenomenal on the ice. He is another key guy, another leader and another guy to calm me down on the bench when I need it.”

The Panthers certainly survived Ekblad being out of their lineup but with him back, along with the additions the team has made, Florida is considered one of the top teams in the league going into the season.

Ekblad is a huge piece of the Panthers and is ready to prove last year’s success was no fluke.

The Panthers have been in this spot before — contend one year, fail the next — but this year certainly feels different. Florida is loaded with one of the best forward groups in the league and a defense that should be improved over last year.

It all starts Thursday morning at FLA Live Arena when the Panthers take the ice for the first time this season.

“I am really excited to get going,” Ekblad said.

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