Three weeks after competing in the NCAA Division I tournament with the University of Minnesota, Nick Bjugstad skated in front of hostile crowds gearing up for NHL postseason action.
The 20-year-old center, who signed an entry-level contract with the Panthers on April 3, made his debut three days later at home against the Capitals. During the recent four-game road trip, he played three games in four days for the first time in his career.
“To actually get out there and play in buildings like Boston and New York and New Jersey — those are great challenges for a young player,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “I think it helps him moving forward in the future.”
Through eight games Bjugstad has yet to record a point — while taking 13 shots — on a line with Jack Skille and Quinton Howden. Yet his playing time has increased. In his first game he spent 14:12 on the ice. In Sunday’s 3-0 loss to the Bruins, he was up to 18:11.
Bjugstad has worked on adjusting from collegiate to professional hockey, primarily the quick recovery needed between games.
“You can’t worry too much about that,” Bjugstad said of his absence from the score sheet. “I’m still young right now. I’ve just got to make sure I’m doing the little things and then comes stuff from the stats. Just got to worry about playing my defensive part. Good things will happen when I’m doing that.”
Florida selected Bjugstad 19th overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft out of Minnesota. No Gopher tallied more goals over the past three seasons than Bjugstad, an All-American who scored 54 goals and recorded 98 points in 109 career games.
“It’s good having guys to talk with and are young,” Bjugstad said. “It’s a nice learning curve for all of us. Giving advice to each other and talking about what we learn from the game.”
Surprising to him was how big and strong the other players around him were. Opponents pounce and capitalize on mistakes. Crispness is necessary on all areas of the ice.
To his advantage are the 6-6, 215-pounder’s physical attributes — size, skating ability and strong set of hands — that Dineen said can’t be taught.
“I think he’s understanding the amount of work that goes into it as well,” Dineen said. “It’s still the learning curve of playing center and against top players in the league. It’s an exciting time for him, and I think he’s coming to the rink every day and showing a commitment to getting better every day. I think that’s what you’re looking for.”
More important, Bjugstad’s experience — though limited and late in the season — offers him a taste of what’s to be expected before next season’s training camp.
Bjugstad plans to return to Minnesota following the regular season for summer classes so he can earn his degree. After a couple of weeks off the ice, he will begin lifting and training, focusing on becoming quicker and stronger.
“That’s nice getting my feet wet for these games and the learning process is big for me,” Bjugstad said. “I didn’t want to go into training camp not really knowing what to expect at this level. That’s why this is a big deal.”
Forward Tomas Kopecky, who missed his first game of the season on Sunday, returns on Tuesday night against the Rangers. So will forward Peter Mueller, whose wife had a baby boy on Wednesday.
Defensemen Erik Gudbranson (hand/wrist) and Tyson Strachan (upper body) will not play.
Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov will not suit up the remainder of the season after being injured Sunday against the Bruins.