Florida's Nick Bjugstad (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Panthers are coming out of a rebuild and the harvest it reaped included a really big pivot from the University of Minnesota. Now Bjugstad is leading the team in scoring and the playoffs are on the horizon.
Think about the elite centers in the NHL and more than likely, the team they play for acquired them through the draft.
Crosby, Malkin, Stamkos, Tavares, Toews, Getzlaf, Giroux, Kopitar and Henrik Sedin all qualify and it's no coincidence they were all snatched up in the first round. Tellingly, none of those players have been traded in their careers and to be a little cheeky, you kinda have to wait until the Boston Bruins are ready to trade a No. 1 center (Thornton, Seguin now that he's in Dallas) if you want one.
Since that's probably not going to happen again for awhile, the path to success is clear – since it's near impossible to win the Stanley Cup these days without a great top pivot – and Florida's leading scorer happens to fit the mold.
Nick Bjugstad was drafted 19th overall by the Panthers in 2010, straight outta Blaine High School in Minnesota. He went on to star for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers before landing in Florida at the end of the 2012-13 campaign and has quickly become the top cog in the Cats' offensive attack.
“Nick has tons of speed and a great skill set to go along with it," said linemate Jimmy Hayes. "He puts himself in those hard areas; he’s getting a lot of good goals around the net using his big body. He’s got a great shot and can beat goalies from far away but he’s starting to learn that he’ll score more when he goes in tight.”
The Panthers aren't exactly an offensive juggernaut and Bjugstad's team-high 35 points ranks him just 91st in the NHL, but he does have his first 20-goal season already, with plenty of time to hit 30. At 6-foot-6 and 218 pounds with a great reach and a fluid stride, Bjugstad has the elements needed to become an elite center, it's now just a matter of time and experience for the 22-year-old, who is playing in just his second full NHL season.
“Last year was an eye-opener for me, learning to play against some of these skill guys in the defensive zone," he said. "That’s the key to this game: If you play better in the defensive zone, the offense will come.”
No Panther has taken more faceoffs than Bjugstad this season and with a 48.5 percent winning percentage, there is room for improvement – but he's far from a disaster in that category. He doesn't face the toughest competition on the ice, but the Cats don't necessarily shelter him either. Hayes noted that both he and Bjugstad could be more physical and thankfully that can be accomplished through self-motivation.
There's a lot to get excited about when you think about Bjugstad as a finished product and right now, he's stoked about still being in the hunt for a spot in the post-season.
“That’s the big difference from last year, everyone is a lot more excited to come to the rink," Bjugstad said. "It’s a lot more fun when you’re winning and this playoff push is a big challenge for us.”
Luckily, GM Dale Tallon did some solid work over the summer by bringing in a cadre of veterans, all of whom have Stanley Cups on their resume: David Bolland, Shawn Thornton and Willie Mitchell are all winners and just as important, they're all talkers. That leadership has been a boon for youngsters such as Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov, Erik Gudbranson and Aaron Ekblad.
"When they need to get on us, they get on us, which is good," Bjugstad said. "It makes us a little more disciplined. They’ve got a winning mentality that they’ve instilled in us. It’s not acceptable to lose and everyone has bought into that.”
And if you haven't bought into Bjugstad as an emerging No. 1 center, it's probably time to start thinking about him that way.