Center Nick Bjugstad
and the Florida Panthers had plenty of reasons to feel good about themselves this summer.
Bjugstad, 24, had 15 goals and 34 points in 67 games last season, the Panthers set franchise records for wins (47) and points (103), won the Atlantic Division and qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2011-12. Bjugstad had two goals and two assists in five playoff games before an upper-body injury kept him out of the Panthers' season-ending 2-1 double-overtime loss to the New York Islanders in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference First Round.
That disappointing ending didn't spoil the progress the Panthers made, but left them hungry for more heading into this season.
"I'm sure most of us still think about that series, and that will be in the back of our minds for the rest of the season knowing how hard it was to get to that point," Bjugstad said. "That was a step for us, but it wasn't the only step we wanted to make. So I think it's just a growing experience for a lot of us. A lot of us hadn't been in the playoffs, and I think that experience will set in and help us in the future.
"Just being in the playoffs and noticing how much of a different pace it is from the regular season, you can talk all you want and watch all you want, but until you experience it you don't really know how fast it is and intense it is. It was some of the most fun hockey I've ever played and I only got to play [five] games of it."
That the Panthers weren't satisfied as an organization was evident in a flurry of offseason moves, beginning with associate general manager Tom Rowe being promoted to GM to replace Dale Tallon, who was named team president, and a revamping of their scouting staff.
Florida also retooled its defense with a focus on upgrading its puck-moving skill, bringing in Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk, and solidified its goaltending depth by signing unrestricted free agent James Reimer to share some of the workload with Roberto Luongo.
Equally important for the Panthers was securing key parts of their core long term. Defenseman Aaron Ekblad signed an eight-year contract extension, forward Vincent Trocheck signed a six-year contract and Reilly Smith signed a five-year contract extension.
These things did not go unnoticed by the returning players.
"For sure it's reassuring seeing all the signings, especially the long-term signings," Bjugstad said. "It shows that we're trying to win. We've made some progress over the last few years and it's fun to see. We've got a lot of good young players that have come into their own, so it's fun seeing guys growing up and just keep getting better every year."
The 19th pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, Bjugstad is under contract for five more seasons and is part of a young group the Panthers have been building around, along with Ekblad, Trocheck, Smith, center Aleksander Barkov and left wing Jonathan Huberdeau.
Bjugstad believes he can take his game to another level, and has worked hard this summer to be ready to reach it.
Being around ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr, who led the Panthers with 66 points (27 goals, 39 assists) last season at age 44, has provided a perfect example for Bjugstad in work ethic and style of play. At 6-foot-6, 218 pounds, Bjugstad has taken a lot just from watching Jagr (6-3, 230).
"I've learned quite a bit from him and it's kind of fun taking his workout strategies and his mindset into the summer and being able to toy with it," Bjugstad said. "Just the maturity in games that you're able to learn from some of these older guys is huge for us young guys. … For myself, I'm working on a big-body, physical-type of game in the summer. There's little things I tweak here and there and work on. Being able to learn from one of the best is huge for us."
One facet of Jagr's game Bjugstad is trying to emulate is how he uses his large frame to protect the puck.
"It's very little stuff, but stuff you're not really thinking about," Bjugstad said. "A lot of times you think about how you're going to win a puck battle and you don't really know how to go about it other than just trying your hardest. But he does it so strategically and he's so smart about it. It's not like he's going in and running guys. He's just protecting the puck and no one can take it from him, so that's something I really watch and learn from him."