It seemed just and fitting that Stephen Weiss paid the Panthers a visit Friday morning.
Not long after Weiss left the locker room after catching up with buddies on the team, Nick Bjugstad walked through soaked in sweat after his first NHL practice.
Weiss is done for the season after having wrist surgery last month and, as a pending free agent, his future with the team is in doubt.
For Bjugstad, his career with the Panthers is just taking off. Where it will end up, well, no one knows just yet.
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“I just packed up and came down here. It’s been a quick process,” said Bjugstad, a 20-year-old center who recently signed with the Panthers after three seasons at the University of Minnesota.
“It will be a fun first game, and it will be surreal for me. I’ve always wanted to play in the NHL since I was little. It’s finally happening for me.”
Like Weiss, Bjugstad was a high draft pick by the Panthers. And like Weiss, he will make his NHL debut at the tail end of what will likely be a season that ends outside of the playoffs.
There was a lot of hoopla surrounding Weiss’ debut when he joined the Panthers after a successful career in the Canadian Junior League. Weiss’ NHL debut came on April 3, 2002, on his 19th birthday, and he scored in Florida’s 3-2 victory over visiting Pittsburgh.
On Saturday, three days after Weiss’ 30th birthday, Bjugstad will play in his first NHL game. Weiss said he, like everyone else around the Panthers, is excited to see what the 6-6 center who was the 19th overall pick in 2010 can do at this level.
“It’s fun to see guys we have drafted over the years, guys you keep an eye on, come up and play for us,” said Weiss, the fourth overall pick of the 2001 NHL Draft by the Panthers. “It’s pretty cool. Hopefully, we have more guys coming up through the system who can contribute.”
Weiss suited up for the Panthers less than a year after being drafted, and his promotion to the big leagues wasn’t without controversy as then-coach Mike Keenan didn’t think he was all that ready for prime time.
Even though Weiss scored in his first game, he found goals hard to come by. Weiss didn’t score in the following six games to close the 2002 season and didn’t score until the 22nd game of the following season.
Weiss has said that looking back, hindsight being what it is, he wasn’t ready for the NHL in 2002. On Friday, Weiss said Bjugstad might be.
“These are different circumstances,” Weiss said. “I wasn’t 6-5 and 200 pounds. I was coming off three years of playing deep into the playoffs and was 170 pounds. There were different rules back then. You could clutch and grab.
“I felt great the first game. It felt easy. The next six were the hardest games I’ve played in this league. I knew I had a lot of work to do. My advice to him is to enjoy it, soak up all you can in these games. Then go back in the summer and train like an animal.”
Bjugstad arrived in South Florida on Thursday and practiced for the first time Friday. Coach Kevin Dineen has Bjugstad on the third line, centering fellow 2010 first-rounder Quinton Howden (25th overall) and Jack Skille.
With a few days between signing his contract and Washington coming to town, Bjugstad has been able to get a good number of friends and family into town for the big debut.
“It’s good to be a little nervous; it keeps you on your toes,” Bjugstad said. “I’ll be ready to go. I’m sure the adrenaline will be going.”
News and notes
• Weiss said his surgically repaired right wrist feels good, and he will be out of his cast in three weeks. Weiss had surgery on the wrist last month in Cleveland and said he can’t wait to get back onto the ice and begin training for next season.
“I’m glad to get it out of the way, get the problem solved,” Weiss said. “Now it’s just getting the proper rehab, get ready for the summer and the start of next season. The process has actually gone pretty fast.”
An unrestricted free agent on July 1, Weiss’ agent spoke with general manager Dale Tallon last week. Tallon said the talks went well. Weiss said he was hopeful things would work out in Florida.
“It’s nice to be in conversation with them, for sure,” said Weiss, who is Florida’s all-time leader with 654 games played.
“It’s no secret I’ve loved playing here. I would like to end my career here. Whether it works out that way remains to be seen. We’ll be talking and communicating and see if we can work something out.”
• Defenseman Mike Weaver continues to work his way back from a knee injury sustained Feb. 28. He skated before Friday’s workout and is expected to be back before the season ends.
Forward Eric Selleck (concussion) also worked out.