SUNRISE — After getting bought out by the Vancouver Canucks this summer, Oliver Ekman-Larsson is ready to prove himself once again with the Florida Panthers.
He knew he was not his usual self last season after coming off a broken foot sustained at the IIHF World Championship in May.
After seeing his defensive-zone play falter before re-injuring the same foot in February, the Canucks decided to move on from Ekman-Larsson following a disappointing finish to their 2022-23 campaign.
Ekman-Larsson did show flashes of his offensive potential, outpacing his production from his first season in Vancouver with 22 points in 54 games, but as the defensive lapses built up, the rebuilding Canucks let him go with a big buyout.
“It is always hard when you struggle as a team,” Ekman-Larsson said. “You cannot take that personally.
“I’ve always seen myself as a guy who looks himself in the mirror first and asks himself what I can do better to help the team win but it’s not really about me at all. It’s about winning.”
And after the Panthers gave him a one-year, $2.25 million “prove-it” contract, Ekman-Larsson feels healthy and ready to do just that.
“When I broke it the first time, I didn’t really have enough time to get it back to feeling good, so I was a little bit rushed,” Ekman-Larsson said.
“But after I broke it again in February, I think I got plenty of time to get where I need to be and I am feeling good. I think that was the bottom line, I want to get back to that and not have to think about it and that is where I am at right now.
“I am really confident and comfortable with where I am at.”
Florida presents a unique opportunity for the former All-Star to revitalize his career.
The Panthers still have a large portion of the nucleus that took them to the Stanley Cup Final but have four spots on the blue line up for grabs between six potential takers.
That number will be cut down to two spots when Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour return from injury — with GM Bill Zito saying the target date for both players is in mid-December.
The combination of competition and a strong roster around him could be exactly what Ekman-Larsson needs to return to form.
“I’m not here to mail it in or anything,” Ekman-Larsson said. “Obviously, we want those two back as soon as they are ready and I think it is good to have guys that push each other.
“At the same time, I want to push them to be better and I know that they are going to push me too. So everything comes into play there.”
Despite receiving the second-highest salary of the four free-agent defensemen Florida brought in during the offseason, his roster spot is not guaranteed either.
With youngsters Matt Kiersted and Lucas Carlsson also in the mix, Zito said that the best players are going to play when the season starts on Oct. 12 — and they will have to prove themselves in training camp.
Ekman-Larsson is no exception to that rule and he knows he will have to put in the work to secure a spot on a team that has its sights set on returning to the playoffs.
“There is a standard on this team and I think you could tell right away when I got here,” he said. “There was no floating around in the summer skates so you can just tell that they are eager to get going, and I am too.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
- Thursday-Sunday: Training Camp, Coral Springs IceDen
- Monday: Preseason Doubleheader v. Nashville @ Sunrise; 2 and 6 p.m.
- Oct. 7: Preseason ends; v. Tampa Bay Lightning @ Sunrise
- Oct. 12: Start of 2023-24 Regular Season at Minnesota Wild (Bally Sports Florida)
- Oct. 19: 2023-24 Home Opener vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (BSF)