Panthers center Nick Bjugstad’s temporary living arrangement serves as a constant reminder of how quickly his situation could change.
One day he might be on Florida’s second line and the next sent down to top minor-league affiliate San Antonio.
“When you’re a young guy with a two-way [contract], you never know what could happen,” Bjugstad said. “If you’re not performing, there’s guys that’ll come in and take your spot. I have to keep trying. I guess I’m always trying to make the team. There’s no guarantees.
“We’re in the temporary living spot, so it’s always in the back of your head. You’ve got to be ready to perform and can’t have any setbacks.”
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The 21-year-old has scored three goals and recorded seven assists in 20 games this season. His 10 points are tied with fellow rookie Aleksander Barkov for fourth on the team.
Coach Peter Horachek, who took over for Kevin Dineen three weeks ago, has given the young players chances to succeed.
“He’s been good,” Horachek said. “He’s a big body. He wasn’t scheduled or [we] didn’t think that a young kid in his first year would step right in in a top-two center line role, but he’s a big, strong guy who’s done well and continued to play fairly well.”
In fact, Bjugstad sustained a concussion during rookie camp Sept. 8 and missed all of training camp. That’s why it came as a bit of a surprise to him when he earned a call-up and played Oct. 15 in the season’s seventh game.
Last season, rookies such as Calder Memorial Trophy-winning Jonathan Huberdeau were thrust into the lineup after a multitude of injuries to the team’s veterans.
This year, guys like Bjugstad and the 18-year-old Barkov have had to earn it. They have shown their coach they want to be there and care to make positive contributions.
“It’s about how effective they’re playing,” Horachek said. “Last year guys got called up because of necessity because of a lot of injuries. That’s not what you want. If your team is healthy you want them to get called up when they earn the opportunity to get called up or when it’s necessary.
“This year we expected Barkov to be there, but we weren’t sure where Bjugstad would be. … He’s been pretty competitive. He’s worked well in the faceoffs. He’s been on the power play. Playing and production is two different things. That needs to continue. He’s playing against the best players in the league.”
A first-round pick in 2010, Bjugstad made his debut with Florida last April after leaving the University of Minnesota following his junior year.
Bjugstad played in 11 games with the Panthers to end last season, scoring a goal in the season finale April 27 against the Lightning.
“I got my feet wet and a feel for it,” Bjugstad said. “In the summer I got to work on some stuff that I thought would benefit me for the season. It’s a different game from college hockey, so I’ve been working on a lot of different stuff.”
On Wednesday, Bjugstad charged in on Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and scored to trim the deficit to 3-2 with 3:43 remaining. New York would go on to win 5-2, but Bjugstad’s goal had given the team a breath of life.
As he continues to see time on the ice, averaging 14:56 per game, Bjugstad’s confidence builds.
“It’s a long season compared to what I’m used to,” Bjugstad said. “Lot of games, so if you have a tough one you’ve got to find a way to bounce back and string a lot of good games together. Obviously, you’re not going to have your best game every night, but the effort’s got to be there every night.”
Forward Jesse Winchester, who has missed the past three games with an undisclosed lower body injury (believed to be a bruised hip) in Edmonton, practiced on Friday.
Horachek called Winchester “definitely day-to-day.”
“He was being tested today,” Horachek said. “I don’t know where he stands, but he went through a whole practice. We’ll see how he came through it. I’ll talk with [head athletic trainer] Dave [ Zenobi] where he stands and where his situation is.”
According to Horachek, defenseman Mike Mottau is “fine” after practicing. Forward Tomas Kopecky (upper body) and defenseman Matt Gilroy (lower body) did not practice. They were placed on injured reserve earlier week but are improving.
“We want those good decisions where there’s push from the bottom up and you start feeling that pressure that there’s people ready to go in the lineup,” Horachek said. “It’s a healthy pressure. It keeps you on your toes.”