Few players were more ready to get training camp going and get back to a normal hockey routine than Nick Bjugstad.
A herniated disk cut last season short for Bjugstad as he underwent surgery in March to relieve pain so severe general manager Dale Tallon said even tying his shoes was an ordeal.
Still, Bjugstad tried to play through the pain. For about 10 games, Bjugstad fought through.
Until he couldn’t go anymore.
“The kid is a gamer,” coach Gerard Gallant said.
Bjugstad, 23, was having a career season before the back injury came to light.
Centering Florida’s second forward line, Bjugstad was leading the team in scoring with 24 goals and 19 assists, becoming a breakout player for the Panthers in his second full NHL season.
“It was a tough way to end it,” he said. “Obviously I had to watch the end of it on television or in the stands. It was a fun season to be a part of, night and day from the year before. But I had never been injured before. I think you learn to appreciate the game a little more. Sitting out for a long time is no fun. You start losing your mind. I was getting bored.”
On Dec. 30, not long after he scored against Montreal, the Panthers showed Bjugstad how much he meant to the organization when they signed him to a six-year contract extension.
“I’m so happy they want me around that long,” Bjugstad said. “It’s an honor.”
Bjugstad, who had his back surgery at the Mayo Clinic in his hometown of Minneapolis, says he is ready to build on the success he had last year.
“This was a different summer for me, but it was good, I put on some weight and put on some muscle,” said Bjugstad, who also got more flexible by working a Pilates program this offseason.
“I’m rested and in a good mental spot to be ready to go this season.”
The Panthers know how important Bjugstad is to their success, with Tallon saying he thought Florida would have been a playoff team last year had Bjugstad not been hurt.
Not only did the Panthers miss having Bjugstad in their lineup down the stretch, but the games he played while injured affected his game as well.
Bjugstad played as hard as he could, but the back pain affected him as he had no goals and two assists in his final six games before surgery.
“I appreciate Dale saying that, but who knows what would have happened,” Bjugstad said.
Added Gallant: “Nick was playing outstanding and to lose him down the stretch was big for our team. It definitely hurt us a lot. But he’s 100 percent now and looks really good. We’ll move on from that.”
On Sunday, Bjugstad will be in his first game situation since being pulled by Gallant on March 21 against Boston when the Panthers visit Nashville for their exhibition opener.
Bjugstad said he is ready to get closer to when the games count.
“You have to treat it as a normal game,” he said. “You have to be ready mentally. I haven’t missed this much time and it was a long offseason. I’m ready to get the pace back.”
▪ The Panthers will play their now traditional preseason doubleheader against the Predators in Nashville on Sunday.
This will be the fourth consecutive season the two teams have opened the preseason with a pair of games in the same day.
Rocco Grimaldi knows a little bit about playing doubleheaders as Florida’s rookie forward played in two games in the same day last year.
Grimaldi played a morning game with Florida’s AHL team in San Antonio on Nov. 19 then was summoned to join the big club in Los Angeles to play against the Kings later that night.
Grimaldi won’t play in both games Sunday, but said he would if asked.
“Might as well, it’s not like I haven’t done it before,” said Grimaldi, one of a handful of players fighting for an open roster spot.
Gallant said the Panthers are taking 42 of the 51 players on the roster to Nashville for the two games.
Goalie Roberto Luongo will not play Sunday but is expected to start Tuesday against Dallas at BB&T Center.
“We had two good days here and now we’re going to go and play some games,” Gallant said. “Ninety-eight percent of the guys are going to be able to play.”
Panthers training camp
Sunday: Preseason doubleheader at Nashville, 4:30 p.m.
Monday: Practice at Coral Springs IceDen, noon
Tuesday: Preseason game vs. Dallas, BB&T Center, 7:30 p.m.