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Another Elite Panthers Prospect, Bjugstad, To Debut

Friday, 04.5.2013 / 6:00 PM ET / News
By Alain Poupart  - NHL.com Correspondent
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Another Elite Panthers Prospect, Bjugstad, To Debut

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- As Florida Panthers players stood in a line at practice Friday, one of the big pieces of their promising future towered over most of his teammates.

One week after Nick Bjugstad's college career came to a sudden end when Minnesota lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Yale nine seconds into overtime, the center took part in his first practice as an NHL player.

Bjugstad was signed to a three-year entry-level contract Wednesday and he'll make his NHL debut Saturday, when the Panthers take on the Washington Capitals at BB&T Center.

"It's pretty wild," Bjugstad said after practice. "A couple of years ago I never would have expected to be here. On draft day I didn't know how long it was going to take or what it was going to take. I'm very fortunate to be here. A lot of people helped me get here. I'm very happy."

Bjugstad joined the Panthers after completing his third season at the University of Minnesota. He ranked in the top 10 in the NCAA in goals each of the past two seasons, with 25 (tied for fifth) in 2011-12 and 21 (tied for eighth) in 2012-13.

Despite a three-game winning streak, the Panthers stand last in the Eastern Conference standings with 11 games remaining. By starting Bjugstad off at the NHL level, the Panthers will lose a year of rights with their star prospect, but general manager Dale Tallon said it was important to get Bjugstad signed and to get him some NHL experience.

"We understand what the consequences are," Tallon said. "He is an asset we wanted to get signed. We wanted to get him in the fold and get him some games and get him some experience and have him indoctrinated into our team now.

"We've got 11 games left. It's a good experience for him, a good learning curve. If he performs well, it'll be that much easier for him at training camp next [season]. It's a good chance for us to evaluate him and a good chance for him to gain valuable experience in a shortened season."

Bjugstad has been considered one of the franchise's top prospects since he was the first U.S. high school player taken in the 2010 NHL Draft as the 19th selection. He was the second of three first-round picks for Florida that year, after defenseman Erik Gudbranson (third) and before left wing Quinton Howden (25th).

Gudbranson has been playing with the Panthers since last season, while Howden made his NHL debut this season and is back with Florida after a second call-up from San Antonio of the American Hockey League.

Bjugstad, though, just might be the best prospect among those three. The nephew of longtime NHL player Scott Bjugstad, he possesses a rare combination of size and skill.

Nick Bjugstad shoots the puck against the Wisconsin Badgers during the Hockey City Classic at Soldier Field on February 17, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) 

"This guy is 6-6, 218, 220 pounds and he's only 20 years old," Tallon said. "Once he fills out and becomes a man, once Gudbranson fills out and becomes a man, and Howden does the same thing, we're going to have some size and some speed and some skill."

At practice Friday, Bjugstad centered a line with Howden and right wing Jack Skille, a 2005 first-round pick out of the University of Wisconsin, who will return Saturday after missing five games with an upper-body injury.

Coach Kevin Dineen said he hadn't decided how much playing time Bjugstad would get against Washington.

"I don't feel the need that he's going to come in and feel like anything other than to get adjusted with his teammates right now and to start understanding the way we play the game," Dineen said. "We'll see where those minutes play out.

"I thought he had a good first day. He got a lot of information in a short time. Other than that, we're looking for him just to come in and get acclimated and start taking the slow process to being a full-time, everyday NHLer."

Despite following up the first division title in franchise history with an injury-riddled campaign that's likely to end with the team out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Panthers have been encouraged by the performance of some of their blue-chip prospects.

Jonathan Huberdeau, the third pick in 2011, is among the leading contenders for the Calder Trophy, second-round pick Drew Shore has stayed in the NHL all season after being an early call-up, and Gudbranson and Howden have continued their development.

Now the Panthers are ready to welcome another big piece of their future, a future Tallon considers bright enough that he refrained from dealing veterans -- other than fourth-line center Jerred Smithson -- at the NHL Trade Deadline.

"We're not really in a rebuilding [mode]," Tallon said. "We're just tweaking a little bit here and there and adding the pieces through the draft that we said we would do. Now we're going to add a couple more of our drafts to the lineup and then just keep adding talent to the roster and see where it takes us. I'm very optimistic about our future in spite of what's happened this year."

Author: Alain Poupart | NHL.com Correspondent




1 p - WSH 82 56 18 8 252 193 120
2 x - PIT 82 48 26 8 245 203 104
3 y - FLA 82 47 26 9 239 203 103
4 x - NYR 82 46 27 9 236 217 101
5 x - NYI 82 45 27 10 232 216 100
6 x - TBL 82 46 31 5 227 201 97
7 x - PHI 82 41 27 14 214 218 96
8 x - DET 82 41 30 11 211 224 93
9 BOS 82 42 31 9 240 230 93
10 CAR 82 35 31 16 198 226 86
11 OTT 82 38 35 9 236 247 85
12 NJD 82 38 36 8 184 208 84
13 MTL 82 38 38 6 221 236 82
14 BUF 82 35 36 11 201 222 81
15 CBJ 82 34 40 8 219 252 76
16 TOR 82 29 42 11 198 246 69


J. Jagr 79 27 39 23 66
J. Jokinen 81 18 42 25 60
A. Barkov 66 28 31 18 59
J. Huberdeau 76 20 39 17 59
V. Trocheck 76 25 28 15 53
R. Smith 82 25 25 19 50
A. Ekblad 78 15 21 18 36
N. Bjugstad 67 15 19 -8 34
B. Campbell 82 6 25 31 31
B. Pirri 52 11 13 -4 24
R. Luongo 35 19 6 .922 2.35
A. Montoya 12 7 3 .919 2.18

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