TORONTO - Nick Bjugstad showed flashes of stardom as a rookie. In his second season, the Florida Panthers centre built a solid case for being a long-time NHL star.
Bjugstad has 20 goals through 55 games, helping Florida go from an afterthought to a playoff contender. And while one 20-goal season doesn't make a career, it's the foundation for future success.
"He's 22 years old and every night he's getting four or five scoring chances a game for us," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said Tuesday. "When you get that many scoring chances and you shoot the puck that well, I think he can be a real good hockey player."
Bjugstad was a first-round pick, 19th overall, in 2010, so he had the potential to be a real good player. He starred at the University of Minnesota and played for the United States at the world juniors and world championship before really emerging as a full-time NHL centre.
But Bjugstad's game is much more advanced than a year ago, when he had 16 goals and 22 assists in his first full season at this level. He credits Gallant for his developing a better all-around game.
"That's a key to this game: You play well in the defensive zone, the offence will come," Bjugstad said. "Last year, rookie year, was just kind of an eye-opener for me.
"It took me a while to learn how to play against some of these skilled guys in the defensive zone. I think that's the main difference."
Bjugstad has been a physical player who's also developed a nose for the puck, having been on the ice for more five-on-five shot attempts with Florida than opponents. That's not easy for young players, especially those like Bjugstad who've had three different coaches in a short period of time.
On the offensive end, Bjugstad pointed to some "puck luck" for his 20-goal breakout performance. It's more than that.
"He goes hard to the net and he gets opportunities on the power play," Gallant said. "He's playing an aggressive game and going to the net a lot more."
Teammate Tomas Fleischmann referred to the six-foot-six, 218-pound Minnesota native as one of the better power forwards he has seen lately. With the Panthers four points behind the Boston Bruins for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Fleischmann said they need Bjugstad to keep scoring.
If he does, Bjugstad could end up with 30 goals. But he's not counting.
"I try to work my hardest every night, can't really worry too much about how many points you're getting or how many goals you're getting as long as you're playing hard, doing the little things," Bjugstad said. "Whatever will come will come."
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