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Bjugstad, new-look Panthers eager to take next step

by Mike G. Morreale

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

Florida Panthers center Nick Bjugstad is anxious to begin a new season with a new coach and several new faces sprinkled throughout the lineup ready to make their mark.

"It sounds like everyone is hungry; it's not fun to lose, especially in the top League in the world," Bjugstad said. "You want to do better and I think guys are really committed to that this year. Hopefully we can turn it around and start with a clean slate and not worry about the last couple of years."

The Panthers are looking for improvement in 2014-15 after back-to-back disappointing seasons: a 30th-place finish in the League standings in 2012-13 and a 29th-place finish last season.

"I think bringing in Gerard [Gallant] as head coach and his staff, coupled with the dynamic of what our roster looks like right now and what's coming through the pipeline, will be a springboard moving forward," Panthers director of amateur scouting Scott Luce said. "I think we're going to be a significantly improved team this year but it will be tough to make the playoffs.

"I think if we can find a way to make the playoffs, it will mark the final push for us to be a consistent playoff team for the next 10 years, barring injuries or bad luck."

Bjugstad, a top-two center as a rookie last season, led the Panthers with 38 points and four game-winning goals in 76 games. He's hoping to take it one step further this season as the Panthers look to secure their second Stanley Cup Playoff berth in four seasons.

"Obviously I'm still young, but I think it's time for me to take a jump from last year," Bjugstad said.

Panthers general manager Dale Tallon added several veterans in the offseason, including forwards Jussi Jokinen, Dave Bolland, Derek MacKenzie and Shawn Thornton, to assist the young players and add more depth to the roster. On defense, two-time Stanley Cup champion Willie Mitchell agreed to a multi-year contract and Aaron Ekblad, the first pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, is expected to ease his way into the lineup along the blue line.

"We've added so much character,"???Tallon said. "We brought in some Stanley Cup champion guys that are excited about coming to Florida and not only being successful in their own right, but also helping our young guys develop quickly. Obviously it's going to take a little time with new coaching and a lot of new faces. It's going to take a little time to jell, but I???like the direction we're headed."

Bjugstad, who was shuffled among all four lines last season, is ready to take on an even greater role. He was given an opportunity to play on the top line midway through last season when rookie Aleksander Barkov was out with a knee injury and did well.

"It's kind of a different locker room that we have this year; I was more of a quiet leader as a rookie," Bjugstad said. "I kind of kept to myself as far as between-period stuff. I'd let the older guys do the talking. I'm not too vocal, but eventually I know I'll have to take on more of a leadership role. When I was in high school and college and was the older guy I became a bit more vocal."

Florida Panthers center Nick Bjugstad is anxious to begin a new season with a new coach and several new faces sprinkled throughout the lineup ready to make their mark. (Photo: Jamie Sabau/NHLI)

Gallant believes his team has the skill and talent to be hard and competitive on a nightly basis. One of his jobs will be to make sure his players believe that. He was an assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens the past two seasons before being hired by the Panthers in June. In Florida he'll be reunited with left wing Jonathan Huberdeau; Gallant coached Huberdeau to a Memorial Cup title in 2011 with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

"Of course I was excited to hear that news [when Gallant was hired]," Huberdeau said. "Gerard has been a great coach for me. He taught me a lot of stuff when I was in junior and it's because of him that I'm in the NHL right now."

Luce believes the time is now for the Panthers to put their best foot forward.

"This is the time, with our new ownership group and our roster the way it's set up, to make a great push because of the great players coming through," he said. "The combination of players we acquired, the coaches and the young players will help put us at that next level where we want to be on a consistent basis year in and year out."

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