Aaron Ekblad said the Florida Panthers are "the team to beat" this season after their offseason moves.
"Maybe in the past people overlooked us, but right now, I would say we go into this year as the team to beat," the defenseman told The Athletic in an interview published Thursday. "With the players we've brought in and the core we have established, I mean, if we don't (win), you know things are going to go sideways pretty quick. We have to realize and know if we want to stay together, we have to win."
The Panthers finished fifth in the Atlantic Division last season and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a third straight season. They were 12 points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card from the Eastern Conference.
Florida fired coach Bob Boughner after the season and replaced him with three-time Stanley Cup winner Joel Quenneville, then agreed to a seven-year contract with two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. The Panthers also signed defenseman Anton Stralman and forwards Noel Acciari and Brett Connolly, who bring playoff experience to a core led by forwards Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck, and defensemen Keith Yandle and Mike Matheson.
Video: 31 in 31: Florida Panthers 2019-20 season preview
Asked if the Panthers' returning players feel a sense of urgency, Ekblad said, "Quite a bit. I mean, it's crazy. You feel it every day … in your workouts on the ice, whatever you're doing, there is a feeling that is there."
The 23-year-old had 37 points (13 goals, 24 assists) in 82 games last season. He has 171 points (66 goals, 105 assists) in five NHL seasons after Florida selected him No. 1 in the 2014 NHL Draft.
The Panthers have qualified for the playoffs once with Ekblad, in 2015-16, when they lost to the New York Islanders in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round.
Ekblad said he's not happy about having such a long offseason.
"While it's nice to get the body right in that amount of time and know that we have a good team coming into the season -- so there are obviously some positives to that aspect of it -- but to not play meaningful games toward the end of the year is not fun," he said. "It is not something you look forward to. It's probably the most depressing time as a hockey player, and it is that way for the entire team and you feel that day in and day out. It [stinks]. Honestly, it is awful when you are losing like that."