The Panthers took a gamble on a player they think can help their offense by signing forward Peter Mueller to a one-year contract on Thursday.
Mueller, 24, is a talented player who scored 22 goals in 81 games as a rookie with Phoenix. Mueller has sustained multiple concussions since, but he said Thursday that his doctors are behind him “100 percent” and that he hasn’t felt this good physically since that freshman campaign in 2007-08. “There are no red flags,’’ Mueller said. “Everything is a go.’’
The Avalanche chose not to tender a contract offer to Mueller (he made $2 million last season and was due a 10 percent raise), thereby putting him on the market at such a young age.
Mueller’s new deal with the Panthers is for $1.7 million as Florida retains his rights for the 2013-14 season as well. General manager Dale Tallon talked about Mueller playing alongside former teammate Scottie Upshall and rookie Jonathan Huberdeau.
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“I’m just looking forward to a fresh start. There’s no secret about my past,’’ said Mueller, who has missed big chunks of the past three seasons because of concussions.
“As I spoke to Dale, he told me what he’s expecting out of me, and I’m expecting a lot out of myself. I’m coming in with a great attitude. I’m ready to rock and roll this coming season.’’
Mueller’s problems started in 2010 soon after being traded to Colorado from Phoenix as he sustained a season-ending concussion in April. Mueller came to camp the following fall and everything looked fine. Mueller took another shot to the head in the Avalanche’s first preseason game, however, and he missed the entire 2010-11 season.
Last season was one of conflict for Mueller. After missing the first 40 games, Mueller returned and had some strong games — including a two-goal performance in an overtime win against the Panthers four games into his return. Mueller had some groin issues as well last season, but scored seven goals in 32 games.
“I hope to get him the way he was his rookie year,’’ Tallon said. “He seems to be revitalized. We did our due diligence. He understands this is a great opportunity. He’s a top six forward with size and skill.
“He’s still young. This is well worth the risk for us to sign him to a one-year deal and hopefully get back to where he was before he was injured.’’
Florida hasn’t been very active on the free agent market since it opened July 1, adding a few minor-league prospects as well as Mueller, defenseman Filip Kuba and enforcer George Parros. The Panthers have lost defenseman Jason Garrison (Vancouver), Mikael Samuelsson (Detroit), Krys Barch (New Jersey) and Wotjek Wolski (Washington).
The Panthers hope that they replaced Samuelsson with Mueller. If he is able to stay healthy, they just might have.
“We think he can play the point on the power play, has good skills,’’ Tallon said. “I liked him this past year, the two years he played in Denver. We checked him out and everything checked out fine. He’s excited about the opportunity. ... He’s young and has a lot of good years ahead of him. If he plays well, he could be here for a very long time.’’
Tallon said there has been no progress in contract talks with winger Kris Versteeg, who elected to take the team to arbitration later this month. Florida had hoped to sign Versteeg to a long-term deal this offseason. While that could still happen before the scheduled hearing, it doesn’t sound like it will.
At the very least, Versteeg will get a one-year deal at a price determined by the arbiter; the two could continue talks about an extension after that. Versteeg can be a free agent following next season.
• Center Nick Bjugstad announced Thursday that he will return to the University of Minnesota for his junior year and not sign with the Panthers. Tallon had said the 6-6 Bjugstad would have competed for a spot on the Panthers roster had he turned pro. Tallon added that the team didn’t put any pressure on their 2010 first-round draft pick and are fine with the decision he made.
Bjugstad helped the Gophers to the Frozen Four last year and his return makes them a heavy favorite to make the trip to Pittsburgh this season.“This is the right spot for me,’’ Bjugstad said in a statement released by the school. “I am going to be close to finishing my education and hopefully can accomplish the goal that I have had ever since I was little, which is winning a national championship.’’
Said Minnesota coach Don Lucia: “We are obviously excited Nick is returning. I think Nick felt that he had a little bit more room to grow as a person and as a player. The great thing is that at the end of his junior year is that he will be very close to graduating college. He can be a leader on our team and he feels he can continue to get better in our program.”
• The Panthers signed goalie Michael Houser and defenseman Josh McFadden to entry-level deals.
The two are expected to be at training camp but start the season in the minors. Houser, named most outstanding player in the Ontario Hockey League last season, is expected to start at ECHL Cincinnati; McFadden will likely start at AHL San Antonio.