Aaron Ekblad‘s smile said it all. The Florida Panthers defenseman had just told the media that he had never been this excited for training camp and preseason games in his seven-season NHL career.
The 25-year-old had good reason to be anxious about the new season getting under way. The last time Ekblad wore a Panthers jersey he was leaving the American Airlines Center ice on a stretcher after fracturing his left leg.
One night earlier, Ekblad was the hero in Florida’s 4-3 win over the Dallas Stars. His 11th goal of the season helped snapped the Panthers’ three-game losing streak. His play was putting him in the Norris Trophy discussion.
The injury happened during an innocuous play, one that happens dozens of times per game. Ekblad retrieved the puck in the corner of the offensive zone, wheeled around to send it back towards the point. As he spun around his right skate first made contact before his momentum took him into the boards, forcing his body off the ice. His left skate was first to land, and did so at an odd angle, which forced his body to twist in a way that led to the fracture.
“Without having that injury before I didn’t know for sure, but I felt my ankle snap,” Ekblad told NBC Sports last week. “I didn’t know the extent to which the ligament damage would have been in the moment, but I knew that my leg was broken. In that moment I’m just kind of freaking out as you can see in my face in the video. Just kind of in a state of shock. It wasn’t really all that painful, but it was shock and just an intense feeling.”
Ekblad was ruled out for 12 weeks and he had to watch the Panthers finish the regular season with a 15-5-1 record before getting bounced in the First Round by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
“That was a tough part of it, for sure,” Ekblad said. “Mentally not being with the guys all the time and feeling like a burden at times. But it’s all part of it, everyone goes through that rehab process. For me it was just kind of different chance to learn from a different perspective and watch games.”
A long, grinding road to recovery
Rehab would begin at 7 a.m. with team trainers before the rest of the Panthers would shuffle in for treatment. Once the team hit the ice to skate Ekblad would workout in the gym and then spend a few minutes afterwards catching up with his teammates.
The 12-week recovery period began the day after the injury when Ekblad had surgery. He did nothing but keep his leg elevated in the first two weeks to avoid any swelling in his leg. The stitches were out by the fourth week and he could begin making small movements with his ankle. Two weeks later were the first steps with crutches, which was followed by three weeks of building up enough leg strength to walk on his own. Five weeks later he back on the ice.
After a summer of rehab — and plenty of fishing — Ekblad declared himself 99.9% ready for the season. But while his leg felt strong again and he wasn’t limited in any of his movements, he still hadn’t faced any contact. There was a mental obstacle to overcome before reaching the next level of progression.
The Panthers held two scrimmages before a split doubleheader against the Nashville Predators last week. Those in-house games helped Ekblad feel “very confident” and were as intense as regular game action, he said.
This is a big season for the Panthers. Expectations are high after a solid 2020-21 season and a roster that was strengthened in the off-season and will be bolstered with a full year of Spencer Knight sharing the net with Sergei Bobrovsky. The franchise has made the playoffs in consecutive years once since 1996 and 1997, and as one of the leaders of the team Ekblad wants to emphasize that complacency has no home in their dressing room.
“It’s just about right the messaging in the locker room, understanding that it’s not going to be easy just because we did it last year, and approach every game with the kind of tenacity that it takes to win on a daily basis,” Ekblad said. “We’re going to have a bit of a target on our backs because of the lineup we have on paper. We want to be able to prove that we can do it on a daily basis with the roster that we have.”
Building off last season will include having a 100% healthy Ekblad, a huge piece of the Panthers’ blue line. He was sixth among all NHL skaters last season in time on-ice (25:05) and is an all-situations defender.
As the Panthers prepare for a season where they have Stanley Cup dreams, Ekblad is feeling like his old self again.
“It’s all coming together and I think I’m going to peak at the right time and hopefully be 100 percent on Opening Night,” he said.