CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey wasted no time ditching his winter coat for a pair of sandals.
On Wednesday, when most NHL GMs were busy moving players before the trade deadline, Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon inked blue-chip prospect Nick Bjugstad to a three-year deal.
The last of Florida’s three first-round picks in 2010 to sign with the squad, Bjugstad will make his NHL debut Saturday night against the Washington Capitals.
“I was waiting for the call,” Bjugstad said. “I got it on Wednesday, packed all my stuff up and headed down here. It was kind of a quick process. I was kind of anticipating I was going to end up somewhere. It’s nice to be here. I’m fortunate to be down here.”
Scouts have praised all aspects of Bjugstad’s game, including his size, two-way effort, playmaking vision, an outstanding hockey sense and — probably most important for the offensively starved Cats — his scoring ability.
During his sophomore and junior campaigns at the University of Minnesota, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound forward ranked among the top 10 college hockey goals scorers with a pair of 20-goal seasons.
Its those assets and experience which made it easy for the Panthers to bring Bjugstad into the NHL fold rather than season him in the minors.
“Whether you’re playing in San Antonio or the NHL, you’re getting acclimated to the pro game, the size, the speed,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “It’s a good experience for him. I think he’s going to come in and start taking the steps to becoming a long-term Florida Panther.”
The arrival of Bjugstad has been long anticipated. The 20-year-old had the opportunity to sign with Florida in time for its playoff run last year. Bjugstad opted to retain his amateur status to complete for NCAA title at Minnesota and gold at the 2012 World Junior Championship.
The decision came as little surprise, however, as Bjugstad’s leadership and loyalty to teammates have been apparent throughout his hockey career.
As a 16-year-old, he declined an invitation to train with the highly respected U.S. National Development Program in order to stay with his teammates at Blaine High School in Minnesota. There, he went on to capture Minnesota’s coveted “Mr. Hockey” award, given to the state’s top senior high school player.
During the 2011-12 season, Bjugstad came close to a pair of championships at both the college and international levels. He earned a bronze medal with Team USA at the 2011 World Juniors. Four months later, Bjugstad’s Golden Gophers advanced to the NCAA Frozen Four, but fell a game shy of the championship.
Both events led him to hold off turning pro.
“I wanted to develop as a leader,” Bjugstad said. “I was a third-year guy on that team and we had a good team. We wanted to win a national championship. It didn’t happen obviously. I developed and grew as a person there. I’m closer to a degree there, too.”
The rookie is 10 credits away from completing his bachelors degree in business marketing. He will graduate this summer.
For now, though, Bjugstad’s education will consist of a full slate of NHL 101.
Linemate Jack Skille, who played at the University of Wisconsin before turning pro, understands the difficulty of shifting from the college game.
“When I turned pro, the biggest difference was the sense of control through the game,” Skille said. “It almost made the game feel slower even though it wasn’t. It certainly made you feel like you had more time with the puck. We’ll see what happens when he jumps in with this pro style. I’m assuming he’ll feel the same way.”
The Panthers wouldn’t mind seeing Bjugstad pick up where he left off in college. They are also realistic the next month will be full of positives and negatives. Even Bjugstad knows the stretch is survey on what it will take to become a full-time NHLer.
“It’s good to get a feel for what it’s like,” Bjugstad said. “I don’t really know what it’s like coming from college hockey. I’ll know what it’s like during the summer and train from what I learn from these guys. I’ll do what I’ve got to do this summer.”
Bjugstad has plenty to cram into the next 11 games.