Wednesday was one of the slowest trade deadline days the Florida Panthers have endured as general manager Dale Tallon made just one minor deal.
The big news, however, came with what Tallon added outside the parameters of the deadline.
Nick Bjugstad, the 19th overall pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, signed a three-year deal with the Panthers on Wednesday and will make his NHL debut Saturday against the Capitals.
Bjugstad, who scored 54 goals during the past three seasons at the University of Minnesota, is scheduled to fly to South Florida on Thursday.
“Nick is going to be here,” Tallon said. “We have 11 games left. This will be a good learning experience for him. If he does well, it will make it that much easier for him at training camp next year. It’s a good chance to evaluate him.”
Bjugstad, a 20-year-old center, recently finished his junior season at Minnesota and won’t wait long to start his NHL career as he is expected to be on the ice for Florida’s practice Friday in Coral Springs.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Bjugstad said from Minnesota. “I just got done playing my final college game, which was a tough one. But it makes it easier knowing I’m jumping into the NHL. It’s very exciting. I’m sure the nerves will be going a little bit.”
With fourth-line center Jerred Smithson sent to Edmonton for a fourth-round pick on Wednesday, well, the Panthers have an open slot.
Tallon said he is excited to see his entire first-round Class of 2010 on the ice Saturday.
Defenseman Erik Gudbranson, the third overall pick in 2010, made his NHL debut last season; Quinton Howden (25th overall) joined the Panthers on Jan. 26.
“Time flies when you’re having fun,” Tallon said. “This is an exciting time for our franchise.”
The Panthers have been reluctant to rush their top young players, however they are making an exception for Bjugstad.
Although they privately wished he would have started his professional career in the minor leagues this season, the Panthers didn’t want to risk Bjugstad returning to Minnesota for his senior season and becoming a free agent in 2014 without signing with Florida. The Panthers will burn a year of his entry-level contract by bringing him up to the NHL level. It’s a tradeoff they were willing to make.
“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, get him some games. We want him indoctrinated with our team now.”
Smithson, whom Florida acquired for a sixth-round pick from Nashville last season, was told of the news after Wednesday’s practice. Smithson isn’t expected to join the Oilers until after the weekend because he and his wife are expecting their first child this week.
“I feel bad about that, he is a solid pro and a classy guy,” Tallon said. “I have to think about the long-term future of the franchise. That’s the business part of it that happens. Sometimes it sucks. You’re dealing with family and friends. We told him we would do everything we can to help.”
Florida also lost forward Mike Santorelli as Winnipeg picked him up off waivers. Santorelli played 13:05 in Florida’s 3-2 shootout win in Tampa on Tuesday after being waived earlier that day.
Santorelli was slated to be third in the shootout but never took the ice as Jacob Markstrom stopped all three Tampa Bay shots.
Santorelli said he is excited about the opportunity to join a Winnipeg team that currently leads the Southeast Division and is trying to win the franchise’s second division title and first since it took the banner in 2007 as the Atlanta Thrashers.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity Winnipeg is giving me and I look forward to helping them out,” Santorelli said. “It’s an exciting time there. It’s a great place to play. I hope I can help as much as I can.”
With all of Florida’s injuries, there weren’t many chips for Tallon to deal Wednesday. Tallon and coach Kevin Dineen said they don’t feel like the Panthers — who won the division for the first time last season — are in rebuilding mode.
“This is a business. A big business,” Dineen said. “You have to manage your team appropriately not just immediate but for your long-term future. … There is a sense we have some real quality guys who are stepping into more prominent role. We don’t want to go back to being a long-term rebuilding project. There’s still some excitement left this season.”
Tallon expects to have a healthy team come training camp when the Panthers embark on a new challenge of playing in an eight-team division with Tampa Bay, Montreal, Boston, Toronto, Ottawa, Detroit and Buffalo.
“When you’re at the bottom,” Tallon said, “teams just expect you to panic and give up players. That’s not going to happen here.”