When Nick Bjugstad, the former Blaine High School graduate and Gopher turned Florida Panthers rookie centerman, took to the ice ahead of his first National Hockey League game last April, he noticed a familiar face warming up across the rink in fellow Blaine graduate, Matt Hendricks, then playing with the Washington Capitals.
Bjugstad recalled how Hendricks reminded him to keep his head up, with a chuckle and smile, in a friendly barb during pre-game warm ups.
A concussion in a Panthers rookie game before this season sidelined Bjugstad for the first seven games. The injury only built up Bjugstad’s passion for the game after a very successful rookie camp in which he was the leading scorer.
“I was excited for training camp after the summer, it was tough but when you’re injured it almost makes you love the game more because you miss it so much,” he said. “It was nice to get back earlier than later [three-four weeks]. Thankfully it wasn’t a long [time out].”
When he made his 2013-14 season debut, it was against Hendricks at his new home in Nashville. The Predators skated to a 4-3 win. Bjugstad had two shots in 9:48 ice time, while Hendricks played 15:34 with one shot and six hits.
Since then, Bjugstad has two goals and five assists in 15 games, including points in five of the last six games for the 5-12-4 Panthers.
In front of more than 70 friends and family and even more who recalled the 6-6, 215-pound forward’s success in the maroon and gold, Bjugstad played a big role in his Minnesota NHL debut against the Wild setting up the Panthers’ tying goal in the third period.
After collecting the puck in the Panthers defensive zone, Bjugstad skated into the Wild end before losing control of the puck, but teammate Jonathan Huberdeau rifled a wrist shot past Wild goalie Josh Harding at the 8:59 mark of the final period.
Bjugstad finished the night with one shot, a blocked shot, a hit, a takeaway, plus-one player rating and a holding minor penalty in 19:03 of ice time centering the top line with Huberdeau and Thomas Fleischmann.
“They put the puck on your tape and they are skilled players so I have to do the little things like get down low,” he said of his role, in addition to winning face-offs.
Holding down that top-line spot says a lot about the confidence new head coach Peter Horacheck has in Bjugstad. Refining defensive skills to become a more complete two-way player and continuing to work hard at all times are the two keys that Bjugstad looks at to reach new heights and more wins for the Panthers.
The slow start in the wins department hasn’t bothered Bjugstad. “It’s a process and I think we can turn it around here,” he said. “We’ve got the guys to do it. There are a lot of games so we can make it up but you can’t dwell on the past.”
After the morning skate around Friday, Bjugstad said he welcomed the chance to catch up with friends and family the night before around the University of Minnesota campus, but couldn’t make the usual stop for pizza at Mesa’s.
“I miss this place,” he said. “It’s only been a couple months but I’ve never really been away from home so this is nice. I was able to see the [hockey] guys and say hi and wish them good luck on the weekend.”
Being a rookie, Bjugstad’s had the usual treatment like last one off the team bus, picking up pucks and showing respect to the veterans. “I have a few extra duties but it’s not that bad,” he said. “The guys have been great.”
When he’s found free time, Bjugstad likes to bass fish, but staying out of the sun to avoid sunburn is a big priority. “Sunburn with the equipment isn’t good,” he said. “It is nice to wake up in the morning and not have to throw on a winter coat.”
After all of the hard work put in over the years, Bjugstad said, “It’s an honor and exciting to be able to play [in the NHL]. If you would’ve asked me four years ago [where do you see yourself in the future] I probably wouldn’t have guessed I’d be playing here against the Wild.”
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