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FIRST STEPS: Aaron Ekblad ready for challenges ahead with Florida Panthers

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
Among the dozens of young hockey players skating around the Panthers training facility Monday afternoon, Aaron Ekblad stood out.
Unlike all but one other player, Ekblad has a single digit on his back. Ekblad's No. 5 will likely remain with him not only through this development camp but through training camp, into the upcoming season and beyond. It will also, no doubt, end up on the backs of many fans.
While the majority of those partaking in this camp -- almost all wearing high double-digits -- will be back in juniors or playing college hockey this fall, Ekblad expects to stay right where he is.
Being the first overall selection in the NHL draft brings many perks -- not just being able to select the number you wear.
It also gives Ekblad the true opportunity to make it to the NHL at the age of 18.
"It's what I do with those opportunities,'' Ekblad said after skating at the Panthers' training facility for the first time on Monday.
"There are a series of milestones and I have to perform and prove that I'm ready at each one of them, I'll prove I belong here. 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.''
The Panthers had flirted with the idea of trading the top pick in last month's draft but general manager Dale Tallon didn't get enough for it. Well, not enough to make him give up the rights to Ekblad.
Florida loves Ekblad's upside and ability to play older than his years.
Although defensemen take longer to develop than forwards because of the intricacies of the position, the Panthers feel Ekblad is going to be able to handle it.
Bryan McCabe, the former Florida captain, knows about the pressures Ekblad is facing. McCabe started his NHL career as a defenseman with the Islanders when he was 20. McCabe also became the youngest captain in the league by age 22.
"He's a kid in a man's body but is very confident and well-rounded in his game,'' said McCabe, who works in player development for the Panthers.
"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's handled the pressure thus far, there's no reason to think he won't now. He's very mature for his age.''
Ekblad said he won't take the opportunity the Panthers are giving him for granted. Florida is going to give Ekblad every chance to make the team out of training camp, but even if he does that, the battle isn't over.
Florida could allow Ekblad the chance to make the opening night roster but still send him back to his junior team in Canada after nine games.
Tallon said Ekblad's play will determine where he ends the upcoming season.
"We'll have a good long look at him at training camp,'' Tallon said Monday afternoon. "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.''
Said Ekblad: "I have the opportunity and I just need to run with it.''
-- The Panthers development camp continues Tuesday with on-ice sessions starting at 8:45 a.m. The camp is held at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs and is free and open to the public.

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