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Panthers' Bjugstad learning how to succeed in NHL

by Tim Wharnsby

TORONTO -- When the Florida Panthers acquired veteran Jaromir Jagr seven months ago to help their push for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it was a thrill of a lifetime for the young core of Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad, none of whom had been born when Jagr made his NHL debut.

The addition of Jagr was the latest piece in the organization's culture change since general manager Dale Tallon arrived on the scene five years ago.

Ownership switched hands to Vincent Viola in September 2013. Tallon brought in a new coach in Gerard Gallant, a top-tier goalie in Roberto Luongo, and Stanley Cup experience with gritty forwards David Boland and Shawn Thornton as well defenseman Willie Mitchell last summer.

Then, Jagr was acquired Feb. 26 in a trade with the New Jersey Devils for a second-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft and a 2016 third-round pick. He signed a one-year contract to return this season.

The 43-year-old Czech, who won the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992, immediately fit in on the ice alongside Barkov and Huberdeau.

But he also was a dressing-room sage for others like Bjugstad, who sat next to Jagr.

"It was cool to sit beside a guy like that," Bjugstad, 23, said. "You see what he's all about, the weight vest, the ankle weights, how hard he works.

"He wants to win. He always has a smile on his face and he talks about the important areas to focus on with a lot of us young guys. He's one of those guys you strive to be like."

It wasn't lost on the young core to watch Jagr go over for the 2015 IIHF World Championship and see the Czech Republic star earn tournament MVP honors.

One takeaway for Bjugstad was how organized the NHL's active scoring leader was on a daily basis.

"His stall was organized the way he wanted it and he had his routines," Bjugstad said. "I'm starting to learn that you need to be organized in professional hockey and I wasn't the most organized person. The more things fall in place, the better prepared you are. Obviously, things have fallen into place for [Jagr].

"A lot of people, family, friends and the girlfriend, aren't buying that I can be more organized, but we'll see."

Bjugstad, a native of Blaine, Minn., comes from a hockey family. His father played high school hockey and coached Nick early on. Nick's uncle Scott followed a similar path in that each played at the University of Minnesota. Scott later played in the NHL with the Minnesota North Stars.

Scott works with his nephew in the summer on his shot and passing techniques and isn't shy with a text or email during the season.

"He notices stuff in the game and he's been very positive with me," Nick said. "He knows what it is like to play at this level. We took the same path to the pros, high school, university and then the NHL. We have the same attitude. We're a lot alike."

Meanwhile, Tallon has stressed to his big-bodied young players like Barkov (6-foot-3, 213 pounds) and Bjugstad (6-6, 210) the importance of protecting the puck in the game today. Jagr has displayed this skill since he was a teenager.

"Everything he does on the ice you want to watch," Bjugstad said. "He's one of the best puck protectors to ever play the game. Peter Forsberg was my idol when I was younger and he was pretty good at it too."

The Panthers fell seven points short of the Penguins in the battle for the final wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference, even though Jagr checked in with six goals and 18 points in his 20 games with Florida.

One of the reasons why the Panthers stumbled was Bjugstad had to be shut down with a back injury with 10 games remaining. Even though he was playing in pain, the second-line center had three goals and seven points in his final 11 games to finish with a career-high 24 goals.

He had surgery to repair a herniated disc and was forced to watch the remainder of the season from the press box.

"I feel more confident year by year," Bjugstad said. "Leaving with the injury I had, it was tough to watch. But we put on a real good push. It makes you hungry for this year."

Mixed in with the Stanley Cup winners and the four-player young core, there are some fresh faces with the Panthers who look to make the step to prime time, players like Vincent Trocheck, Rocco Grimaldi and 2015 first-round draft pick Lawson Crouse.

"It's always a lot more fun when you're winning," said Bjugstad, who enters his fourth NHL season looking for his first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"When you see the changes and the commitment, it makes you want to win more when everyone is 100 percent in.

"I look at Barkov, he's made big steps in his game. He has so much talent and he's so unselfish. He's figured it out.

"We're excited to make the next step."

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