SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) Aaron Ekblad is fully aware that the Florida Panthers will be dealing with a new issue this season, that being the burden of preseason expectations.
He's not bothered.
The Panthers reached the playoffs and won the Atlantic Division last season, two major steps for a franchise that has known almost nothing but struggle since reaching the Stanley Cup final for the first and only time in 1996. And with a young core of talent now basically locked up for years - the 20-year-old Ekblad is under contract through 2025 - anything less than a playoff run next spring would be a disappointment for Florida.
''In the end, your guys' expectations and everyone else's expectations mean absolutely nothing,'' Ekblad said. ''It's our expectations. As players, on a personal level and on a team level, we have expectations that exceed all of yours times 10. In the end, we're the ones who have gotten here. We're the ones who have pushed ourselves beyond measure to get into this situation.''
And what is this situation?
''We believe we can do it,'' Ekblad said.
Ekblad has been an All-Star defenseman in each of his first two NHL seasons, and he's already one of the faces of the franchise. Hockey hasn't caught basketball - even after Dwyane Wade left the Miami Heat this week for the Chicago Bulls - or football in terms of popularity among the South Florida sports landscape, but the fact that these Panthers are getting attention in the summertime shows how far the franchise has come.
The Panthers announced his $60 million, eight-year extension (which kicks in next summer) last week, then held a news conference at their arena on Thursday to announce the deal again. There's some offseason rebuilding projects going on in the arena, and there was some remodeling of the roster this summer as well.
There's more than two months before the start of training camp, but it's hard to find a time when optimism has been this high for Florida.
''We put ourselves in a good position,'' Panthers general manager Tom Rowe said. ''Are we a definite Stanley Cup, going-away winner right now? I don't think you can rule us out but it's not a guarantee by any stretch of the imagination. But I think we've got the horses now to have a deep run in the playoffs.''
Ekblad will be a big key, if or when that deep run ever comes.
He's seemed unfazed by whatever came his way in his first two seasons with the Panthers. His confession came Thursday: He's not always as cool as he appears.
''I try to keep it all in my head,'' Ekblad said. ''I really try to put a face on that no one really knows what's going on inside my head and I think a lot of players from a lot of different sports have that. Obviously, every night, I go to bed and I think about all those things and all those pressures. But more or less just have to use it as motivation and that's what I've done over the last couple years.''
It's working for him, and it's working for the Panthers as well.