Florida Panthers

Nick Bjugstad realizes he ‘could be better’ as a frustrating season comes to a close


It has been a tiring and frustrating year for Nick Bjugstad.

So, when coach Tom Rowe came out and said Bjugstad “has to get back to form,” the Florida Panthers’ center wasn’t too surprised.

It wasn’t like Rowe didn’t tell Bjugstad those things in private nor does Bjugstad seem to disagree with those sentiments.

Bjugstad comes into Saturday’s game against the visiting Chicago Blackhawks with just five goals in 45 games — a career-low at any level for the talented center who went from being a Minnesota prep star to leading the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers for three seasons.

“I hold myself accountable for where I’m at,” said Bjugstad, who hasn’t scored a goal in a month.

“I could be better, feel like I have it in me and that’s why it’s frustrating to see the stats I have this year. I’ll leave it at that.”

SATURDAY’S NEWS: Tom Rowe regrets playing Aaron Ekblad so soon after concussion

Bjugstad remains a big piece of Florida’s future with the Panthers signing him to a six-year deal worth an average of $4.1 million per with four years left after this one is completed.

“They signed me long-term and I want to live up to that,” he said. “Trust me, no one is more disappointed with this than I am. I’ll do my best to change things this summer.”

A 24-goal scorer two seasons ago, Bjugstad’s teammates know he has it in him to get back to where he was. Last year, Bjugstad had 16 goals in 67 games.

“Every player has a tough year but you don’t define a career on one rough season,” Jussi Jokinen said. “You have to have mental toughness and come into next year — finish the season right — and find that success again. Nick has succeeded at this high level. He knows he can do it..”

This season has left some wondering whether Bjugstad will be with Florida next year, if he gets traded or perhaps picked up by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in the upcoming draft.

Bjugstad, 24, says he wants to remain with the Panthers, wants to rebound along with his disappointing team.

“I love living here, I want to be here,” Bjugstad said. “I’m proud to play for the Panthers, want to be here for a long time.

“It has been a bizarre year, a lot of changes and that has taken some adjustment. But it shouldn’t be too hard. Every player we have is a good player. It’s on us. We know what we have. We can’t have another year like this, take the positives and move on.”

Bjugstad’s struggles date to last season when he was out a month because of migraines. Vincent Trocheck took his spot as the second-line center and never gave it back, leaving Bjugstad to wander around a bit.

After leaving Game 5 of the playoffs after smashing his head in overtime, Bjugstad had a good offseason only to injure his wrist in a preseason game. That injury cost him 19 games.

When Bjugstad returned, it took him 14 games to score his first goal as he struggled to get into a groove after being shuffled from line to line, position to position.

“It’s confidence,” Rowe said. “He has had so many days where he has been injured, then he comes back and tries to get into a rhythm but the top two lines are solidified. ... We moved him to the right, the left, the middle; that’s affected him a tad.”

A natural center, Bjugstad was tried out on the wing for the first time in his career.

Lately, Bjugstad has been centering Florida’s third line with Jonathan Marchessault and Thomas Vanek with Rowe noting Bjugstad has a chance to “use these last games to get his game where it needs to be.”

“It has been a different season with positioning, injuries,” Bjugstad said. “It has been an adjustment, but at this level, everyone should be able to play center or wing. It wasn’t that big of a deal but I feel more comfortable at center. Sometimes playing with new linemates works, sometimes it doesn’t. You need to generate chances with whomever you play with.”

▪ Roberto Luongo worked on the ice again Saturday and will likely travel with the team. Luongo said Saturday he is working out with the hope of playing before the season ends but stressed he wouldn’t come back until he felt 100 percent.

Luongo aggravated an injury believed to be related to the hip surgery he had last summer and left a game in Philadelphia on March 2 after one period.

Saturday: Blackhawks at Panthers

When/where: 7 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise.

TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640, WMYM 990.

Series: Chicago leads 21-10-3.

Scouting report: The Blackhawks won the first meeting 2-1 in a shootout in the debut of Tom Rowe behind the Panthers bench on Nov. 29 in Chicago. … Chicago leads the West with 102 points and has won six of its past seven.