Sunrise - July 8, 2014 - Defenseman Aaron Ekblad was selected No. 1 in the 2014 NHL Draft by the Florida Panthers in part because he was considered the most NHL-ready player at his position.
With the Panthers' prospect development camp opening this week at their training facility in Sunrise, Fla., spectators already are wondering whether Ekblad will begin the 2014-15 season on the NHL roster.
"We'll have a good, long look at him at training camp," general manager Dale Tallon told the Miami Herald. "If he's ready, he's ready. If not, well, [Jonathan] Huberdeau went back. Guys come back better players.
"But if he's ready, we're keeping him, no doubt. We're still thinking the same thing about this being a marathon. We're getting closer with each draft."
Ekblad, 18, has spent the past three seasons with the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League, and Florida could return him to his junior team before the start of the season or before he plays his 10th NHL game without burning the first year of his entry-level contract.
However, after he had 23 goals and 53 points and dominating the OHL last season, his sights are set on improving the Panthers, who finished next-to-last in the Eastern Conference in 2013-14.
"There are a series of milestones and I have to perform and prove that I'm ready at each one of them," Ekblad said. "I'm obviously going to get the chance, but I have to prove myself. I can't rest on my laurels, rest on where I was drafted. I consider all of us as equals."
Bryan McCabe, a former Panthers defenseman who now works in the team's player development department, sees in Ekblad a player whose size (6-foot-4, 216 pounds) will serve him well as he transitions to playing against bigger, stronger competition. But McCabe also stressed Ekblad's work ethic as a key to his future success.
"He's a kid in a man's body but is very confident and well-rounded in his game," McCabe said. "He's very grounded and humble and doesn't act like a first-overall pick. He's going through the grind with everyone else. … He has handled the pressure thus far; there's no reason to think he won't now. He is very mature for his age."