Florida Panthers

Panthers’ Nick Bjugstad bullish on future after signing long-term deal

Florida Panthers center Nick Bjugstad (27) reacts after scoring a goal to tie the NHL hockey game during the third period against the Montreal Canadiens, Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014, in Sunrise, Fla. The Canadiens won 2-1 in a shootout.
Florida Panthers center Nick Bjugstad (27) reacts after scoring a goal to tie the NHL hockey game during the third period against the Montreal Canadiens, Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014, in Sunrise, Fla. The Canadiens won 2-1 in a shootout. AP

For a guy so calm and collected, Nick Bjugstad sure likes to hurry up and get things done.

A budding star center for the Florida Panthers, Bjugstad not only finished high school in three years, but graduated from the University of Minnesota in the same amount of time.

On Tuesday, in his third year with the team, he became the first of Florida’s young cornerstone players to sign a long-term contract.

Bjugstad, the Panthers’ scoring leader the past two years, signed a six-year contract which will pay him $4.1million annually starting next year.

The only player under Florida’s control longer is goalie Roberto Luongo, whose pact runs through the 2021-22 season.

“I really like it down here, and the security is nice,’’ Bjugstad, 22, said after the deal was officially announced on Wednesday.

“We have a good thing going with the young guys, [general manager] Dale [Tallon] is doing really good with the draft picks. We’re going to have some really good chances in the playoffs the next few years, and that contributed to my decision.’’

Bjugstad wasn’t in much of a rush to get his Florida career started, opting to go back to Minnesota after a sophomore season in which he helped lead the Gophers to the Frozen Four.

After a strong junior year — one in which the Gophers failed to win the national title — Bjugstad decided he would join the Panthers but only if it happened right away.

Instead of starting in the minors, Bjugstad’s agent made it clear the Panthers needed to start him at the NHL level or he wouldn’t sign with the team.

Had Bjugstad not signed with Florida and returned to Minnesota as a senior, he could have signed with any other team later that summer.

Not wanting to lose Bjugstad over a contract year — and let’s face it: the 2013 Panthers needed the help — Tallon agreed to the deal.

“I knew I was going to be a Panther, but I wanted to play in the NHL, get that experience,’’ Bjugstad said. “I think it helped my career. I knew what it was like. But there was never any doubt in my mind I would be here.’’

Bjugstad, fresh out of college, played in 11 games for the last-place Panthers in 2013.

“It paid dividends on both sides,’’ said Tallon, who landed Bjugstad at 19th overall in 2010.

“That’s the nature of the business. You have to take some risks sometimes and do things that benefit the future of the franchise.’’

Bjugstad may have forced the Panthers hand a bit, but it worked out in the end. The 11 games played in 2013 was a great experience, one that benefited him the following year. And with this new deal, the burned contract year didn’t really come into play.

“It could have went either way,’’ said Bjugstad, who scored his first NHL goal in his 11th game on April 27 at Tampa Bay.

“It worked out well. Dale gave me a chance, and I’ve been pretty lucky.’’

When training camp opened in 2013, the Panthers planned on having Bjugstad start the year in the minors.

Bjugstad, however, sustsined a concussion before camp opened. By the time Bjugstad was ready to play in October, the Panthers were desperate for offense.

Then-coach Kevin Dineen, who would be fired a few weeks later, saw no reason for the 6-6 center to go to San Antonio when the Panthers so obviously could use his skills, and he asked Tallon to keep him on the big squad.

Bjugstad never did go to San Antonio as he became the first rookie to lead the Panthers in scoring (38 points) in franchise history.

With Bjugstad set to be a restricted free agent following this season, Tallon initiated talks with Bjugstad’s camp.

On Tuesday, Tallon and agent Ben Hankinson finalized the deal in Tallon’s suite on the press level during the first intermission. Bjugstad scored his team-leading 13th goal in the third period.

“He has tremendous upside,’’ Tallon said. “He’s fun to watch.’’

Bjugstad signed the paper work not long after the game ended with his mother Janeen — who happened to be in town for the holidays — alongside.

After signing the big deal, Bjugstad took his mom and sister Abbie out to dinner at the only place they could find that was still open.

A sports bar in Weston may not have been the fanciest place to celebrate a $24.6million contract, but for a blue-collar player such as Bjugstad, it was good enough.

“I’m going to keep living like I’ve been living,’’ said Bjugstad, who despite his raise says he’s going to keep his late-model Chevrolet Tahoe a little longer.

▪ With Bjugstad signed, Tallon said he will look at signing Jimmy Hayes and Jonathan Huberdeau to contracts in the near future.

Hayes and Huberdeau become restricted free agents on July 1.

“If you want to be a Panther you have to perform,’’ Tallon said. “It’s a great message all around.’’

Hayes had a career year with the Panthers last season, scoring 11 goals in 53 games. On Wednesday, he matched his goal total from last year in his 27th game.

“It’s confidence right now, and I’m getting some good bounces,’’ Hayes said. “I’m going to the net and need to continue to get open.’’

Friday: Panthers at Sabres

When/where: 7 p.m.; First Niagara Center, Buffalo, New York.

TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560.

Series: Buffalo leads 45-34-4.

Noteworthy: Florida’s five-game winning streak over the Sabres came to a close last month as Nikita Zadorov scored in overtime to lift Buffalo to a 4-3 win. Florida is 2-0-1 against Buffalo this season.

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