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AARON EKBLAD: Ready to play for Florida Panthers ... But will he stay?

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

In years past, the Panthers have given their highest draft picks plenty of playing time throughout their first preseason.

Last year, Aleksander Barkov played in four of seven preseason games after being the second-overall pick that previous June.

Jonathan Huberdeau played in three of Florida's six preseason games in 2011; Erik Gudbranson got in all six games the season before.

Through the first four exhibition games this year, Aaron Ekblad -- the NHL's top draft selection in June -- has only played in one.

He will play in his second Thursday night when the Panthers play host to the Lightning at BB&T Center.

Coach Gerard Gallant said Ekblad had a "minor tweak" after Saturday's game against the Predators hence why he was held out Monday in Dallas.

"We want him 100 percent when he's out there,'' Gallant said of Ekblad, who suffered a concussion in August but played in all three games of Florida's rookie tournament in Nashville.

"We want to play him in the home game and we don't want to play him too much. We'll decide on the next one. We have to see a lot of guys and know what he's going to be. He has some time and has already played a lot of hockey.''

Ekblad, 18, didn't feel like he played his best in his preseason debut Saturday. Ekblad said he wasn't satisfied with the way he played but is looking forward to playing in his first home game Wednesday.

"I'm just happy to get the opportunity to play in any games for this team,'' Ekblad said. "I'm still trying to work my way into it. .-.-. I think I've picked up my play in the past few days.''

Veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell, who has been partnered with Ekblad, says he sees plenty of potential and will continue to help guide the way.

"He's a good young player who needs to see more action,'' Mithcell said.

"He wasn't happy with his first game and I don't think anyone is. You feel like crap, don't have your legs underneath you yet. I'm excited to get in a few more games with him. My thought is a young player like that should be playing non-stop.''

While the Panthers are expected to make at least eight roster moves in the coming days before the season begins, Ekblad likely will not be one of them.

Florida can play Ekblad in up to nine regular season games before deciding whether to keep him with the big squad or send him back to his junior team in Canada.

If Ekblad plays in a tenth game, he could still be sent back, but he would have burned a year off his contract.

"He's an 18-year-old kid and we know he's going to be a great hockey player,'' Gallant said. "But this is a big step. A lot of people can attest that playing defense at 18 in the NHL means you have to be a special player. We're going to go game-by-game and see how he gets along. We're not going to rush anyone.''


Where, When: BB&T Center, Sunrise; 7:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: None