Former Mr. Hockey is a drawing card, but in a Panthers uniform.
FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. – The way Nick Bjugstad figures, Fox Sports North ratings are bound to get a bump Saturday night.
“A lot of my buddies and family members are Wild fans. I’m sure they’ll all be tuning in,” Bjugstad said, adding with a laugh, “I’m not sure who they’ll all be cheering for.”
The Wild badly needs to salvage some semblance of this 1-2 road trip against the Florida Panthers, but Bjugstad’s clan of Minnesota fans may switch allegiances for this one evening.
Bjugstad, the former Gophers forward and 2010 Minnesota Mr. Hockey from Blaine High School, is expected to face his hometown, home state Wild for the first time in his relatively new NHL career.
“That’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Bjugstad, 21, the 19th overall pick by the Panthers in 2010. “If I wasn’t playing for the Wild, I’ve always wanted to play against them. I was a fan since they started the organization and it’ll be really exciting for me.”
Bjugstad has played in only two games this season, recording an assist in Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Boston Bruins. That’s because Bjugstad suffered a concussion on a fluky hit in the third game of the Panthers’ prospect tournament in September.
Bjugstad missed all of training camp before finally making his season debut Tuesday in Nashville. After signing his first pro contract with the Panthers days after the Gophers were stunned 9 seconds into overtime by Yale in the opening round of the NCAA tournament in March, Bjugstad played 11 games, scoring his first NHL goal in a victory over Tampa Bay in the season finale.
He was minus-8, calling the taste test of the NHL a great learning experience heading into this season.
“Guys are just smarter, guys are in the right spots all the time,” Bjugstad said. “I compare it to a chess game. If you’re in the wrong spot, the other team’s going to capitalize. You just have to use your skill, smarts and play hard. Everyone’s the best in the world. It’s a whole different speed and whole different intelligence level for everyone.”
Bjugstad prepared hard for this season, which made the concussion all the more disappointing. He couldn’t do anything, couldn’t work out and had to watch others excel throughout an important training camp, one in which he wanted to partake in so he could prove his worth even further.
For now, the Panthers have opted not to send him to San Antonio for seasoning.
“He’s a 6-foot-4½, righthanded centerman. Those are the type of players you need to have in the game today,” Panthers assistant GM Mike Santos said. “You look at some of the guys we have to play against — the Staal brothers in Carolina, Joe Thornton in San Jose, Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, the center position is a big man’s position now.
“Nick’s a big, young kid who’s going to be a really good player. He’s got all the skill in the world and most importantly, he’s a great kid.”
The Panthers are a young team trying to grow together. Up the middle, the future is likely Aleksander Barkov, Bjugstad, Drew Shore and Vincent Trocheck. The very talented Jonathan Huberdeau can play center, but his future is likely on the wing. The Panthers also have a number of young defensemen.
“I’ve got to find a role,” Bjugstad said. “It’s still early for me. I’ve just got to be a big, two-way forward. My size is going to be a big factor for me. I’ve got to be strong in the corners. That’s another part of the game that’s a whole different deal than college. Guys are all stronger and I need to be strong out there.
“But there’s definitely a bright future here. We have a lot of good draft picks coming up, so it should be interesting to see how it plays out.”
After a career-high 25 goals and 42 points as a sophomore, Bjugstad returned to the Gophers last season because he had a bitter taste in his mouth after advancing to the Frozen Four as a sophomore. He led the Gophers with 21 goals, but losing to Yale in the NCAA tournament again left him unsatisfied.
“I think about it quite a bit,” Bjugstad said. “You want to win it all. It’s tough to win it all, though, when you play elimination games. I loved my time at the University of Minnesota. I wouldn’t take it back for anything. There’s still an empty feeling, but I still enjoyed my time and am really thankful I got to go there.”
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