It appears Florida Panthers rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the first pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, has done more than enough to prove he belongs in the NHL.
"Unless he really collapses, I don't see him going anywhere," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon told NHL.com. "I've been very impressed with his composure and maturity. Once the regular season started, he was a different guy; it was like game on and almost as if he's been around for a long time."
Tallon has until the 10th game to determine if Ekblad has what it takes to remain with the team over an 82-game schedule. He could be returned to the Barrie Colts in the Ontario Hockey League without his three-year entry-level contract kicking in at any point before his 10th game, which will likely occur Nov. 4 at TD Garden in Boston.
"He's improving and playing well, playing lots of minutes, and has some good mentors here in Willie Mitchell and Brian Campbell," Tallon said.
Ekblad has been paired all season alongside Campbell and has averaged 21:54 of ice time. He has two assists, a minus-1 rating and eight shots on goal in seven games.
"He was originally going to be paired with Willie [Mitchell] but we've got [Dmitry] Kulikov with Willie," Tallon said. "Having [Campbell] there is important because Aaron knows that if he gets into trouble, he can dish it off and [Campbell] can lug out the mail. It's a good pairing."
Tallon wouldn't think twice about returning Ekblad to Barrie if he didn't think he could have an impact. The GM returned Jonathan Huberdeau, who was chosen No. 3 in the 2011 NHL Draft, to the Saint John Sea Dogs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for an extra season before he turned pro in 2012-13 and won the Calder Memorial Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.
The Panthers (2-2-3) are allowing 2.14 goals per game, which ranks 11th in the League. The team ranks 16th in shots allowed per game (29.6).
"One of the reasons our defense has been good is because of Aaron's play," Tallon said. "He's played like a real pro. He's been as good a player as we've had and it's been terrific watching him."
Tallon believes his team is just a break or two away from having a winning record.
"We've lost two overtime games and another game by 1-0 and the only poor performance was a 23-minute span against the New Jersey Devils in the home opener [on Oct. 11]," Tallon said. "It'll take some time with the new coaches and the new players, but I think that when we get through the first 20 games and we're still in the hunt, the confidence will be there."
Tallon is privy to the fact the team needs more on offense; the Panthers rank 29th in the League with a 1.43 goals-per-game average.
"We don't have a prolific goal scorer yet and that's what we and everyone else is looking for," he said. "But that's the only thing we seem to be lacking; a guy who can break the game open. Whether there's someone in our lineup that can do that, we'll see. I do know one thing, I sent six kids down prior to the start of the season that I'm confident in bringing back up, so we do have depth."
Tallon remains confident his team, which has missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, can earn a postseason berth in 2014-15.
"If we stay healthy and get a little break here and there, get good goaltending and remain competitive, we can challenge for a playoff spot," Tallon said. "I know that we're headed in the right direction."