SUNRISE — With Aaron Ekblad out of the Florida Panthers lineup the past few weeks, the opportunity has come for a couple of defenseman to step up and help fill those skates.
Although the Panthers cannot replace a player such as Ekblad until he returns — which is expected in a few weeks once he is medically cleared and satisfies the terms of being placed on LTIR — they have been able to survive.
One player who has been getting more playing time than anyone could have expected is Josh Mahura.
Florida claimed him off of waivers from Anaheim before the start of the season. Based on the Panthers only being able to carry six defensemen on the roster due to salary cap issues, Mahura was going to be given a real shot to show his worth.
So far, so good.
Matt Kiersted, on the other hand, was likely headed to Florida’s AHL team in Charlotte.
He was with the team working through an injury when Ekblad was hurt, and was able to jump right in and start playing.
Kiersted may not be logging the big minutes of Florida’s other defensemen, but he is getting his most consistent NHL look since the end of the 2021 season when he signed with the Panthers as a college free agent out of North Dakota.
“It has been good to get into the groove of things, being part of it every day from games and practice and traveling with the team,” said Kiersted, who played in seven games with the Panthers in 2021 and 10 last season as he spent most of his time with Charlotte.
“I definitely feel a little comfortable. We’re getting there. I take every shift for what it is, I don’t count my minutes or compare my shifts to other guys. I try to control what I can control and when I get out there, I try to be the best version of myself.”
As for Mahura, Florida hoped it picked up on another waiver wire gem — that is how they acquired Gus Forsling in 2021 — and so far, so good.
Mahura has two goals in nine games which is one off his career-high set in 38 games with the Ducks last season.
Playing alongside veteran Radko Gudas, he says, has helped him get off to a quick start with his new team after spending his entire pro career with the Anaheim organization.
“From the get-go, this has been a very welcoming room and each day, each week I get more comfortable here,” said Mahura, who is averaging close to 14 minutes per game, which is ranked fourth among defensemen currently playing.
“I think it is a credit to the guys in the room, the leadership group we have here. It could be a tough situation, coming into a room after training camp when all of these guys have been grinding it out together. But, they welcomed me with open arms and were ready to go. …
“You want to get as many touches as you can, especially early in the season. I want to just keep getting better and continue to grow my game.’’
As for Ekblad, he is aiming to return from his groin injury when the Panthers play host to the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 12.
Ekblad has been skating and is expected to be traveling with the team on its west coast trip on Monday.
While he cannot return until Nov. 12 because he has to miss 10 games and 24 days of action, that does not mean he will come back on that date.
The Panthers have to make absolutely sure he is able to stay in the lineup on a nightly basis upon his return.
Because Florida’s cap problems come back when Ekblad’s salary is added back into the mix, the Panthers will likely go back to carrying 20 players. In usual times, you could bring an injured player back and kind of ease them into the lineup.
That does not appear to be the case in this situation.
“If you spent 25 days getting a guy right, you’re not going to put him in on (Day) 26 when 31 clears it right up and that is true of every player,” coach Paul Maurice said. “When you’re talking about the big-minute guys, you have to make sure they are 100 percent ready. If he’s going in, he’s got to be ready to play back-to-backs.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT ARIZONA COYOTES
- When: Tuesday, 10 p.m.
- Where: Arizona State Mullett Arena, Tempe
- 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: Florida won 2-0
- All-time regular season series: Arizona leads 19-16-2, 3 ties