Saturday was to be a big night for 21-year-old center Nick Bjugstad as he squared off against his hometown Minnesota Wild for the first time.
Bjugstad was Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey in his final season in high school and he also spent three seasons at the University of Minnesota.
A first-round pick in 2010, Bjugstad made his debut with the Panthers last April after leaving Minnesota after his junior year. Bjugstad played in 11 games with the Panthers to end last season, but missed all of training camp after sustaining a concussion Sept. 8.
“I’m excited to play my hometown team because I know I have a lot of family and friends back home watching,” said Bjugstad, who had an assist Thursday against the Bruins in his second game back from the concussion.
“I can’t worry about who we’re playing though. I have to worry about our game plan and our style. I will have it the back of my head. I grew up watching these guys.”
Coach Kevin Dineen pulled Bjugstad aside for a long, private conversation after Friday’s workout with some wondering if Bjugstad might be headed to the minors.
Dineen said that was not the case. Bjugstad started the night on a line with Shawn Matthias and Jesse Winchester.
“The gist of the conversation was for him to not be happy just being here,” Dineen said. “I have no problems with his last couple games.”
Bjugstad was expected to start the season in the minors but made his return from a concussion Tuesday in Nashville. Bjugstad had only one family member in town for Saturday’s game, but he knows the Wild has sold quite a few tickets to Team Bjugstad in anticipation of Florida’s visit to St. Paul next month.
“Everyone’s watching this one on the tube,” Bjugstad said, “but if I’m there next month, there are a lot of tickets sold just in case I am playing. That will be the big ticket for the home folks, if I make it there.”
• Dineen joked that as a former player at the Denver University, he wasn’t a big fan of Bjugstad’s while he played at Minnesota.
“I’m a DU guy. I’m not big on the Gophers so that doesn’t go far with me,” Dineen said with a grin. “The stinkin’ Gophers, like on Caddyshack.”
Minnesota’s Dany Heatley has had many memorable moments at the Panthers’ Sunrise arena, although he wasn’t able to get out of his scoring slump Saturday.
The 32-year-old winger came into Saturday with 17 goals in his career against the Panthers but none in four games against them as a member of the Wild.
Heatley, who has yet to score a goal this season, was MVP of the 2003 All-Star Game held in Sunrise when the then-Atlanta Thrasher scored four goals in a losing effort. Heatley’s 17 goals against Florida are the most of any current Minnesota player.
• Bjugstad isn’t the only Florida player with ties to Minnesota, as defenseman Tom Gilbert is a Minneapolis native who spent parts of the past two seasons playing for the Wild.
Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher spent a few seasons with the Panthers and was at one point the team’s interim general manager. Fletcher was featured in one of Florida’s 20th anniversary “good luck” videos shown during opening night.
• Minnesota defenseman Keith Ballard was scratched Saturday for the third consecutive game after taking a puck to the face in a game last Monday at Buffalo.
Ballard signed a six-year deal with the Panthers not long after coming over in from Phoenix in the Olli Jokinen trade on draft day in 2008. Ballard only spent two seasons with Florida, however, going to Vancouver in a deal that netted the Panthers a first-round pick (Quinton Howden).