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One Small Step; One Giant Leap

by "Hockey Pat" McGrath / Florida Panthers
Nick Bjugstad scores a goal on the Toronto Maple Leafs earlier this season (Getty Images)

The NHL’s seven-month, 82-game regular season is a long, hard grind during which every team’s roster sees numerous changes.

Injuries, call-ups, trades and free agent signings are just some of the events that give rise to new faces in new places throughout the year. This year’s Florida Panthers lineup is no exception. However, in the midst of a sea of change, one big constant in Sunrise has been the presence of rookie center Nick Bjugstad, a 21-year-old who has suited up in 75 games (with Saturday’s season finale to go) and consistently occupied a spot centering one of Florida’s top two lines.

Hockey fans in South Florida have grown so accustomed to seeing the 6’6” Bjugstad lace up the skates on a nightly basis that it is easy to forget that, at this time last season, he was just a wide-eyed young talent making the transition from college to the pros. Bjugstad signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Panthers on April 3, 2013, and played in his first NHL game three days later against the Washington Capitals. Just a short week prior to his NHL debut, Bjugstad was wrapping up his successful collegiate career as a Minnesota Golden Gopher in the NCAA Division I playoffs.

Bjugstad would suit up in 11 games for the Panthers at the tail-end of last season, recording just one point. In due time, however, that relatively inauspicious cameo would be revealed to be the harbinger of much bigger things.

Using those games and the subsequent offseason as a springboard, Bjugstad returned for the full 2013-14 campaign and emerged as one of the league’s most exciting rookie talents. With one game remaining in the season, his 38 points lead the Panthers and place him fourth among all NHL rookies. On top of all that, Bjugstad is responsible for some of the most jaw-dropping goals of the year, including this highlight-reel goal against the Detroit Red Wings that was selected by Panthers fans as the team’s Lexus Goal of the Year:

One of the things Bjugstad was most impressed with during his 11 games last season was the sheer strength and playmaking abilities of NHL players.

“Guys are a lot stronger so I’d say being strong on the puck and making crisp plays,” Bjugstad said on his main takeaways from last season. “If you don’t make the right play, it’s going to come back and bite you. Making strong plays and being consistent that’s the main thing.”

With a better idea of what it takes to be successful in the NHL, Florida’s young center was able to take what he learned during his brief 2012-13 NHL season and apply it to his offseason workouts.

“I trained accordingly in the summer,” Bjugstad said, “I got to train with a lot of pro guys that play in Minnesota, so I think it was a good thing for me because I learned a lot and got to see what it was like and kind of settle in and not be so nervous about playing in the NHL.”

Bjugstad’s route (a taste of year-end action followed by a leap forward the next season) is not an entirely unfamiliar one. It is not uncommon for teams outside of playoff contention to get top prospects into some end-of-season games in order to afford the player a chance to get some NHL action and acquire a better understanding of what they need to improve on during the offseason.

During the 2009-10 season, the Bruins dressed a 21-year-old winger named Brad Marchand for 20 games. He recorded just one assist during that span, but came back the following season and accumulated 41 points (21-20-41) in 77 games, earning a spot in the Bruins’ lineup that he has yet to relinquish.

Six-time all-star Martin St. Louis has had a superlative filled career complete with a Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP) and two Art Ross Trophies (league’s scoring title). That career began quietly when St. Louis made his NHL debut during the 1998-99 season, recording two points in 13 games with the Calgary Flames. At that juncture nobody would have predicted the career St. Louis would go on to have, and while he only recorded two points, St. Louis would probably point to those initial games as some of the most instructive of his career.

For players such as Marchand, St. Louis, Bjugstad and many others, getting those initial games under their belt as a regular season winds down is a great way to work through some of the customary rookie pitfalls and go into offseason workouts with a better understanding of what it takes to be successful at the NHL level and with clear targets for improvement. The numbers these players put up when they came back is a testament to how far they progressed year over year.

This pattern bodes very well for the Florida Panthers, whose roster during the latter parts of this season has been populated by many young, talented players receiving their first look in the big leagues. Young players such as Quinton Howden, Vincent Trocheck, Brandon Pirri, Colby Robak Drew Shore and Alex Petrovic have each shown flashes of skill that have excited Panthers fans during the 2013-14 stretch run. They will each go into the offseason with better knowledge of what they need to do to improve to be everyday NHL players, and this will only help accelerate their development.

This investment in youth should pay dividends in the near future as the team looks to continue to build on the foundation that is already in place. The small taste Bjugstad received at the end of last season provided invaluable experience that he was able to leverage into his outstanding rookie campaign. As the 2013-14 season comes to a close, the Panthers have been able to give some of their other talented young players their own tastes of the NHL. Thanks in large part to this sampling, the young players now have a better comprehension of what it takes to succeed under the bright lights. Moving forward, they will have lots of good examples around them to look up to, especially if they look way up and find Mr. Bjugstad.

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