Thomas Vanek is a little bit older than Nick Bjugstad so the two were never teammates at the University of Minnesota.
These two Golden Gophers will play together in sunny South Florida now.
Vanek, the newest member of the Florida Panthers, joined the team for the morning skate at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.
As expected, Vanek (Minnesota Class of 2004) was paired up with Bjugstad (C/O 2013) and Jonathan Marchessault on Florida’s third line.
Denis Malgin, who centered that line Tuesday against Carolina, is one of three healthy scratches for Thursday’s game against the Flyers (7 p.m., FSFL).
“I’ve been watching him since I was a little kid and he has got some skill,” said Bjugstad, a lifelong Gophers fan (and former team captain) who has skated with Vanek during the offseason in Minnesota for years.
“If you get open, he will find you. He’s one of those players who knows how to handle the puck, throw those saucer passes at you. He has unbelivable hands. I think this is going to be a fun line.”
Vanek, 33, hopes to help Florida’s quest for a playoff spot as the Panthers came into the day a point back of Toronto for the final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference and were four points behind the red-hot Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division.
With 15 goals, Vanek led the Detroit Red Wings but with the reality being the Wings missing the postseason for the first time since 1990, Vanek — on a one-year contract — was let go for a third round pick and AHL defenseman Dylan McIlrath.
“It felt nice to get out there, skate, get to know the guys a little bit,” said Vanek, who was traded twice during the 2012-13 from Buffalo to the New York Islanders to the Montreal Canadiens.
“You play the game for a chance to get into the playoffs, to get a chance at the big prize. This team is very close, is very talented and I’m excited to join them.”
Said Bjugstad: “At this point in the season, when you’re making a playoff push, to bring in a player this talented and this skilled will do nothing but help our team. We’re excited about it. It’s a big addition.”
General manager and interim head coach Tom Rowe said Vanek is “one of the better passers in the league” and would be seeing time on the Florida power play from the onset.
“We play a pretty simple game and it’s nothing he hasn’t seem before,” Rowe said. “We did more just to get him acclimated with us, ran him through a few things in the video meeting ... He’s a smart player, a world-class player. He’s going to pick things up very quickly.”
▪ The NHL 100 fan experience opens Thursday evening outside the BB&T Center and is free to the public.
Called the ‘NHL Centennial Fan Arena,’ exhibits include large trailers full of Hall of Fame memoribilia, a virtual reality Zamboni and the Stanley Cup.
On Friday, some portions of the exhibit move east to Fort Lauderdale beach — including the Stanley Cup — from 3-7 p.m.
Fans can watch Thursday’s game against the Flyers at the arena on Thursday night as well.
▪ After beating the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in a shootout on Tuesday, Roberto Luongo will start for the second consecutive game.
Rowe said he wasn’t surprised at the way Luongo bounced back and said Luongo was being too hard on himself for telling the Miami Herald on Sunday that he “didn’t deserve to be playing right now.”
Luongo made 23 saves against the Hurricanes not including both shots faced in the shootout.
“He said he didn’t deserve to play but we sure weren’t that harsh on him,” Rowe said. “I think that’s just him being critical of himself. He’s a real pro, it’s not surprising he bounced back the way he did. Good for him.
“We’re happy for him but happy for us. When he’s playing well, we’re a real tough team to beat.”
▪ Shawn Thornton returns to Florida’s fourth line after being scratched Tuesday for the first time since Jan. 7. The Panthers will scratch Malgin, Michael Sgarbossa and Jakub Kindl against the Flyers.
THURSDAY: PANTHERS AT FLYERS
▪ When, where: 7 p.m.; Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia.
▪ TV/Radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640.
▪ Series: Philadelphia leads 50-34-7.
▪ Scouting report: The Flyers have won both meetings against the Panthers this season yet come into Thursday’s game three points back of Florida. Philadelphia had lost four of five before beating the sinking Avalanche 4-0 on Tuesday.