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Top pick Aaron Ekblad still with Panthers after roster cuts

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers made another round of cuts Friday following the team's 3-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night, and it's not exactly a shocker that 2014 first overall pick Aaron Ekblad remains with the team.

The 18-year-old defenseman, who admitted he wasn't thrilled with his preseason debut Sept. 27, bounced back Thursday night with a strong performance, and Panthers general manager Dale Tallon took notice. Ekblad played 27 shifts in 24:08 of ice time, including 3:28 on the power play.

"He was much better than he was in his first game," Tallon told ESPN.com, adding that Ekblad had an impressive rookie camp as well.

Tallon told reporters on Friday that Ekblad can expect a long look from the Panthers; the team can keep him around for at least nine games before deciding whether to send him back to his junior hockey team.

Tallon seemed willing to practice patience with the former OHL standout, however, especially with the difficulty of playing defense at such a young age against bigger, stronger competition.

"It takes time," Tallon said.

And though Ekblad made a few rookie mistakes during his first game in the lineup, he wasn't alone. Veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell, who has taken Ekblad under his wing and was paired with him in the rookie's first game, said he too felt some rust.

"He's a good young kid, a good player. [We] just need to get him more action," Mitchell said. "I know that his first game he wasn't very happy with, but I don't think anyone was. I wasn't happy with my first game [of the preseason]. No one ever is. You feel like crap. You feel like you only got maybe two or three strides and maybe your legs not underneath you yet."

Ekblad has played only two of the team's first five games of the preseason, with the last tuneup before the regular season starts slated for Saturday night -- the second of a home-and-home against the Lightning. Mitchell, 37, said that type of plan is a stark deviation from when he entered the league in 1999.

"My opinion is a kid like that should be playing nonstop," Mitchell said. "When I first came into the league, I think back then we had nine exhibition games and I think I played all nine. It's a tough position, especially at 18 years old, no matter how skilled and talented you are, to not get noticed."

Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said earlier this week that the team doesn't want to rush or overuse the youngster, especially with some other critical roster decisions to make before opening night.

"We've got to see a lot of guys and we know what he's going to be," Gallant said. "He's got some time. Obviously, there's time during the season and we'll see how he gets along with the game. We just want to make sure he's ready. He had a lot of games in the rookie camp -- he had three straight games -- so he had a lot of hockey."

One of the other players the Panthers must make a decision on soon is veteran free agent Shane O'Brien, who is with the team on a tryout. O'Brien has acquitted himself well during camp and Tallon has indicated that he'd like to keep him around.

Asked about any imminent deal, O'Brien's agent, Steve Kotlowitz, politely declined to comment.