CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- As Florida Panthers players stood in a line at practice Friday morning, one of the big pieces of their promising future towered over most of his teammates.
One week after Nick Bjugstad's college career came to a sudden end when Minnesota lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Yale nine seconds into overtime, the center took part in his first practice as an NHL player.
Bjugstad was signed to a three-year entry-level contract Wednesday and he'll make his NHL debut Saturday night when the Panthers take on the Washington Capitals at BB&T Center.
"It's pretty wild," Bjugstad said after practice. "A couple of years ago I never would have expected to be here. On draft day, I didn't know how long it was going to take or what it was going to take. I'm very fortunate to be here. A lot of people helped me get here. I'm very happy."
Bjugstad joined the Panthers after completing his third season at the University of Minnesota. He ranked in the top 10 in the NCAA in goals each of the past two seasons, with 25 (tied for fifth) in 2011-12 and 21 (tied for eighth) in 2012-13.
Despite a three-game winning streak, the Panthers stand last in the Eastern Conference standings with 11 games remaining. By starting Bjugstad off at the NHL level, the Panthers will lose a year of rights with their star prospect, but general manager Dale Tallon said it was important to get Bjugstad signed and to get him some NHL experience.
"We understand what the consequences are," Tallon said. "He is an asset we wanted to get signed. We wanted to get him in the fold and get him some games and get him some experience and have him indoctrinated into our team now.
"We've got 11 games left. It's a good experience for him, a good learning curve. If he performs well, it'll be that much easier for him at training camp next year. It's a good chance for us to evaluate him and a good chance for him to gain valuable experience in a shortened season."
Bjugstad has been considered one of the franchise's top prospects since he was the first U.S. high school player taken in the 2010 NHL Draft as the 19th selection. He was the second of three first-round picks for Florida that year, after defenseman Erik Gudbranson (third) and before left wing Quinton Howden (25th).
Gudbranson has been playing with the Panthers since last season, while Howden made his NHL debut this season and is back with Florida after a second call-up from San Antonio of the American Hockey League.
Bjugstad, though, just might be the best prospect among those three. The nephew of longtime NHL player Scott Bjugstad, he possesses a rare combination of size and skill.
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"This guy is 6-6, 218, 220 pounds and he's only 20 years old," Tallon said. "Once he fills out and becomes a man, once Gudbranson fills out and becomes a man, and Howden does the same thing, we're going to have some size and some speed and some skill."
At practice Friday, Bjugstad centered a line with Howden and right wing Jack Skille, a former first-round pick out of the University of Wisconsin who will return Saturday after missing five games with an upper-body injury.
Coach Kevin Dineen said he hadn't decided yet how much playing time Bjugstad would get against Washington.
"I don't feel the need that he's going to come in and feel like anything other than to get adjusted with his teammates right now and to start understanding the way we play the game," Dineen said. "We'll see where those minutes play out.
"I thought he had a good first day. He got a lot of information in a short time. Other than that, we're looking for him just to come in and get acclimated and start taking the slow process to being a full-time, everyday NHLer."
Despite following up the first division title in franchise history with an injury-riddled campaign that's likely to end with the team out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Panthers have been encouraged by the performance of some of their blue-chip prospects.
Jonathan Huberdeau, the third pick in 2011, is among the leading contenders for the Calder Trophy, second-round pick Drew Shore has stayed in the NHL all season after being an early call-up, and Gudbranson and Howden have continued their development.
Now the Panthers are ready to welcome another big piece of their future, a future Tallon considers bright enough that he refrained from dealing veterans -- other than fourth-line center Jerred Smithson -- at the NHL Trade Deadline.
"We're not really in a rebuilding [mode]," Tallon said. "We're just tweaking a little bit here and there and adding the pieces through the draft that we said we would do. Now we're going to add a couple more of our drafts to the lineup and then just keep adding talent to the roster and see where it takes us. I'm very optimistic about our future in spite of what's happened this year."