It’s not often you hear an NHL player screaming in pain. That mentality of never, ever showing any form of weakness is so deeply embedded in each player’s DNA that they can endure the kind of physical agony that would crumple most people. So when Aaron Ekblad was slapping his palm against the ice and bellowing after his grisly fall in a game Sunday night, you could tell that it was bad. Really bad.
The good news for the Florida Panthers, if there is any, is that Ekblad ultimately flew home with the team from Dallas after the Panthers’ 4-1 win over the Stars and will be further evaluated Monday. But nobody appears to be kidding themselves here, least of all the Panthers themselves. “We think he’s going to be out for an extensive time,” said Panthers coach Joel Quenneville.
That is, simply put, a disaster. After years of teasing their fans and wildly underachieving, the Panthers have looked very much for real this season. Part of the reason for that has been the play of Ekblad, who sees an average of 25 minutes a night and was on pace to post the most impressive offensive season of his career. After battling multiple concussions, Ekblad looked this season to be on the cusp of entering the upper echelon of defensemen in the NHL, perhaps even garnering some serious support for a Norris Trophy.
And while nothing is firm yet, it’s really hard to watch his awkward fall along the boards Sunday night and not think the worst. Even though he waved to the crowd as he was being taken off the ice on a stretcher, he was still being taken off the ice on a stretcher. Generally speaking, that’s a pretty negative development. “He’s probably going to be out for a while,” said Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau. “It’s not cool. You hear him scream. It must have hurt so (badly). I didn’t really see it. I really didn’t want to see it.”
If it turns out that Ekblad cannot return this season, it will make for a very interesting two weeks for Panthers GM Bill Zito. But we must first go on the premise that there is no way Zito is going to be able to fully replace Ekblad from outside, despite what he does between now and the trade deadline. A right-shot defenseman who plays big minutes and makes impactful contributions in all areas of the ice is a commodity that is in short supply. Anyone who has those players is intent on keeping them.
One thing working in Zito’s favour is the Panthers’ advantageous cap position, one that will be enhanced if Ekblad’s $7.5 million cap his is parked on the long-term injury list. The most likely candidate for the Panthers to pursue would be Mattias Ekholm of the Nashville Predators, who has a year left on his contract on a ridiculously cap-friendly $3.75-million hit. But really, is Ekholm even on the market anymore? With back-to-back wins over the Chicago Blackhawks on the weekend, the Predators have won five in a row and are in a tie with the Blackhawks for fourth place in the Central Division. Once given up for dead, and apparently in the selling mode, the Predators are now back in the race. It doesn’t seem possible that Predators GM David Poile would be able to sell his fan base on dealing Ekholm with the Predators very much in the playoff picture. Not when Ekholm has that kind of salary with a year of term remaining.
So that leaves the likes of Brandon Montour of the Buffalo Sabres or David Savard of the Columbus Blue Jackets, both of whom are short-term rentals, neither of who can even come close to filling the massive chasm created by Ekblad’s injury. Perhaps Josh Manson of Anaheim might be in play and that has intriguing possibilities. He still has a year remaining on his contract with a $4.1-million cap hit. He also has a limited no-trade clause that includes a 12-team no-trade list. But there probably aren’t too many NHL players who would balk at the opportunity to play in south Florida.
The bottom line is the Florida Panthers are less of a team without this season’s version of Aaron Ekblad, regardless of who replaces him. Quenneville said after Sunday night’s game that winning in the playoffs is “an acquired taste,” and it’s something the Panthers still have to do. Without Ekblad, it would be all the more difficult. “Our group has achieved a lot this year,” Quenneville said. “Time is going to answer all that stuff, but I still think the group is achieving a lot of good things this year, a lot of positive accomplishments in the first half. You get some excitement in certain ways, but right now is not a day to get excited.”