Aaron Ekblad will play in his ninth NHL game on Saturday night and what the Panthers will do afterward is the worst kept secret in town.
Although the team has the option of sending Ekblad back to his junior team in Canada following Saturday's game, the 18-year-old defenseman isn't going anywhere.
General manager Dale Tallon wouldn't come right out and say that Ekblad will remain with the Panthers for the remainder of the season on Friday, but he made it clear that he has no other plans for the top pick in the 2014 draft.
"He really picked up his game once the season started,'' Tallon said. "He's a gamer and boy, he's been very good. He's been a big part of our solid defense. We'll decide after [Saturday] but obviously it looks pretty good for him. He's played junior a long time and he's a man now. It probably doesn't make any sense for him to go back. There's a good chance he's going to be here.''
Ekblad has been living in a Coral Springs hotel with a handful of teammates since training camp although he'll start looking for more permanent living arraignments soon.
The Panthers have relied on Ekblad a lot this season as through the first eight games, he has logged over 20 minutes a night in every game since the opener in Tampa.
Despite that, Ekblad says he's not looking ahead and is taking Saturday's game as any other.
On Friday, Buffalo sent Sam Reinhart -- who was picked second behind Ekblad -- back to his junior team after his nine-game stint.
"I think I'm playing well right now,'' Ekblad said. "I have some great guys to lean on and I feel good. I've been playing some important situations, getting every opportunity. Obviously it's something in the back of my mind, but they'll tell me soon.''
Brian Campbell has been paired up with Ekblad since the start of the season and the two have played extremely well together.
Campbell leads the Panthers in ice time with an average of 24:01 per night and Ekblad isn't far behind averaging 21:56 -- fourth-most on the team and second-most among all NHL rookies.
Campbell says no one on the Panthers expects anything less than having Ekblad around for the remainder of the season and due to Ekblad's play, no one has even thought about the NHL's nine-game 'try-out' rule as it applies to Ekblad's situation.
If Florida were to send Ekblad back to junior hockey, he would still have three years left on his entry level contract. When he plays in his tenth game Tuesday in Boston, Ekblad's contract officially kicks in.
"What's the point in even talking about it anymore? After the second game you kind of knew it was a non-issue,'' Campbell said.
"This ninth game thing isn't a big deal in his case. He's been great, really good. I never saw him play before but he has surprised me a little in how good he is. Wait until he's 21 or 22. It's pretty obvious we made the right move in taking him.''
Said coach Gerard Gallant: "We haven't really talked about it. The kid has been playing over 20 minutes, playing every situation. I didn't expect him to be as good as he is at this level. He may have some ups and downs later in the season, I don't know, but so far after eight games it's been all positive. The kid has been outstanding.''