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Ekblad learns lessons from Panthers prospect camp

Monday, 07.21.2014 / 3:00 AM / NHL Insider

By Alain Poupart - NHL.com Correspondent

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Ekblad learns lessons from Panthers prospect camp
Defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, will be given every opportunity to play for the Florida Panthers this season.

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- After Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad wrapped up his first professional development camp, the first pick in the 2014 NHL Draft wasn't quite sure what was next on his agenda.

Perhaps he would attend a camp in Cape Cod conducted by Panthers skating and skills coach Paul Vincent. Or maybe he would stay in Ontario and focus on off-ice training.

Either way, Ekblad is going to be working. The development camp provided him with an idea of what it would take to earn a spot on Florida's roster in training camp and he'll spend the rest of the summer with that thought in mind.

"I loved it," Ekblad said after development camp ended. "I had a lot of fun from the very beginning, learning quite a few pretty important lessons I can take into the rest of the summer. Obviously I still have a lot of hard work to go through to make this team in September."

The most important lesson might have come from longtime NHL defenseman and Panthers manager of player development Bryan McCabe.

"Just how much it takes," Ekblad said. "We had a good talk with Mr. McCabe. It's just amazing how much mental toughness and how physically and mentally prepared you have to be to make it to the next level. It's a big jump and I'm really excited and aware of what I have to do."

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Ekblad, 18, showed off his offensive skills during a scrimmage on the last day of camp, blasting a slap shot past goalie prospect Evan Cowley.

Afterward, Ekblad said he was less than happy with his scrimmage performance from a defensive aspect. That's one area of focus for him over the next several weeks, along with skating and getting stronger.

"I need to work on everything," he said. "Skating is one of the things I focus on the most considering it's a fast-paced game in the NHL and that's what I need to work on the most. ... Any time you can get a little bit stronger, it's really important. I want to get a little bit stronger, upper and lower body. The full realm of my game needs to get better before I can play in the NHL."

Panthers general manager Dale Tallon repeatedly has said Ekblad will be given every opportunity to earn a roster spot in training camp, and McCabe echoed those sentiments.

Ekblad, who will participate in Canada World Juniors training camp in August, isn't taking anything for granted.

"Obviously I don't expect a spot on this team. I have to earn it," he said of the Panthers. "And this is just the first stepping stone to that goal. I don't think until my first game I'll feel that I'm finally here."

At the very least, Ekblad made a very good first impression on his new employers.

"What we expected is what we got," Panthers director of player development Brian Skrudland said. "Very mature young individual that's focused. He is on the right track. He's not only a great hockey individual, but he's a good person off the ice. He seemed to take a leadership role with this group right off the hop and ran away with it, and was vocal, was respectful, was everything it takes to be a Panther. His future looks bright.

"[Now it's just] making sure that he's not going to be surprised by anything when he shows up here in September. He's heading home. He's got a great program for the summer. What we saw right now and him just finishing up a month ago, we feel pretty good about it."

Tallon's message to Ekblad for the next few weeks was simple.

"Just keep getting better," Tallon said. "This is an indoctrination camp. He's probably learned a lot about fitness and nutrition and the pace of play and how to get better. This kid is totally committed. He'll go back and do whatever it takes to come back here and earn a spot on our team."

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