Aaron Ekblad will not be a free agent for a long time. That alone made this free-agency day for the Florida Panthers an overwhelming success.
The Panthers have locked up their star 20-year-old defenseman for eight additional years, the sides formally completing the work Friday on what will be a $60 million extension that keeps him in Florida through the 2024-25 season. The deal was announced on the first day of the NHL’s free-agent signing period, though Ekblad was still under contract to Florida for the coming season.
“I don’t think it’s any secret,” Panthers general manager Tom Rowe said. “He’s a guy we want in the fold for a long time to come.”
Ekblad was an All-Star in each of his first two years with Florida, and now clearly becomes a face of a franchise that believes it is getting closer to finally hoisting the Stanley Cup.
“Couldn’t be happier,” Ekblad wrote on Instagram as he posed in a Florida jersey.
He was the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft and already is Florida’s franchise leader with eight career game-winning goals.
“An exceptionally skilled, intelligent and mature young player that is a difference maker for our team both on and off the ice,” Rowe said.
The Panthers won the Atlantic Division last year, reaching the playoffs for just the second time in 15 seasons. The ownership group led by Vincent Viola has made no secret that it is driven by winning a championship, and Florida is starting to look like a real potential contender.
“He bought the team to win a Stanley Cup and the players that we’ve got here all want to win a Stanley Cup,” Rowe said. “We felt what we did today gives us a better chance of doing that.”
There were other moves, including the signing of goaltender James Reimer to a five-year, $17 million deal to share the workload with starter Roberto Luongo.
Reimer has spent six seasons in the NHL, mostly with Toronto. He also appeared in nine games – eight regular-season, one playoff – with Stanley Cup finalist San Jose this past season.
Reimer came to South Florida to see the Panthers’ facilities Friday and was quickly convinced he was making the right decision.
“We’ve got a great team and great management and ownership, they’re passionate about winning,” Reimer said. “As a player, that’s the organization you want to be a part of.”
Luongo is still one of the best in the NHL, but the Panthers have been mindful of not overusing their 37-year-old goalie. He’s sat out roughly one of every four Florida regular-season games in each of the last two years and had offseason hip surgery. The Panthers made a trade for former Colorado backup Reto Berra late last month. If Luongo isn’t ready for opening night, Berra would begin as Reimer’s backup.
“We really targeted Reimer as a guy we see long term,” Rowe said.
So Reimer’s role will hardly be a limited one, and he’s looking forward to being with Luongo.
“He’s a heck of a goalie, he’s an elite goalie and I think his personality is known across the league,” Reimer said. “He’s just a great guy. For me, I’m excited to learn from him.”
Reimer’s arrival means Al Montoya‘s time as Luongo’s backup is over, and longtime Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell is gone as well, as was expected, particularly after the team landed Keith Yandle late last month. Campbell is going back to the Chicago Blackhawks for next season.
Florida also added a pair of forwards Friday, signing Colton Sceviour and Jonathan Marchessault to two-year contracts.
Sceviour had 11 goals and 12 assists with Dallas last season, then added five more points for the Stars in 11 playoff games. Marchessault had seven goals and 11 assists in 45 games for Tampa Bay last season.
Rowe coached against Sceviour in the AHL and sees him as a third-line option right away for Florida.
“It’s a young league and the game’s getting faster every year and we felt the guys we picked up today, it gave us more skill and definitely gave us some quicker guys at that third-line position,” Rowe said. “It gives (coach Gerard Gallant) some options, more options than we had last year.”