SUNRISE, Fla. - There wasn't much that went right for Nick Bjugstad last season.
An upper-body injury sustained during the preseason led the former first-round pick to miss the first 19 games of the 2016-17 regular season, the first of several hiccups in an admittedly up-and-down year in which the talented young forward struggled to stay healthy long enough to find his groove.
"It's no fun to start the year off like that," Bjugstad said after cleaning out his locker at BB&T Center in April. "You work hard all summer and then come in and get an injury in the preseason; it was kind of a flukey one. I had a couple months to really think about it and then I got going. It took a while to find my groove, obviously. It was up and down all year. Being healthy, especially for myself, is definitely a goal for next year."
With that goal in mind, Bjugstad opted to spend the majority of his summer on the ice in Minnesota skating in Da Beauty League, a no-hit, 4-on-4 hockey league made up of NHL players and top amateurs.
So far, that dedication has paid off, as the 25-year-old has already tallied 20 points (9-11-20) through 39 games this season despite making the transition away from his natural center position to the wing. In 54 games last year, he recorded a career-low 14 points (7-7-14) in 54 games.
Before embarking on a five-game road trip, Bjugstad sat down with FloridaPanthers.com's Jameson Olive to discuss several topics, including his return to form, the Florida Panthers' winning streak, and what it was like to compete for Team USA at the World Junior Championship.
OLIVE: You've bounced around the lineup a bit this season, but were able to spend quite a few games alongside Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov on the top line. What's it like playing with two forwards of that caliber?
BJUGSTAD: You know what they're going to do night in and night out skill-wise. For me, it's just about not getting out of my game and kind of playing my style and letting them do their thing. I think if I don't try to do too much and I just play a hard game and come up with pucks down low we'll be alright. Obviously, they're a puck-possession line. You want them with the puck in the offensive zone. They're going to make plays. It's just more playing my game and letting them do their thing. I think when that happens good things come about.
OLIVE: I've talked to a lot of players over the years about the experience of playing with Barkov. In your opinion, how much easier does he make the game for you?
BJUGSTAD: Any pass you throw at him he's going to catch and any time you're open he's going to find you. It's pretty nice being on the wing. He's just like Huberdeau -- they're skilled, smart players. When you've got a center like that that can skate, is so smart and has such good hands, you've got to be ready at all times. I had quite a few opportunities [against Montreal] and that's going to happen with those guys. They create. They make stuff happen. You've always got to be ready."
OLIVE: You set up Huberdeau for a goal against Philadelphia on Dec. 28 after digging the puck out from along the boards and sending it towards center ice. In your transition from center to the wing, how different has it been playing more in the dirtier areas rather than open ice?
BJUGSTAD: As a center you're more in the middle of the ice and have always got your speed. The wing's a little different, but the adjustment's easier when you play with guys like that. You've just got to find ways to get speed. On that play with Huberdeau, he was just open. You've just got to get him the puck because he's hot right now.
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OLIVE: After how last year began and ended, how much better are you feeling this season?
BJUGSTAD: Especially compared to last year, I just feel a lot more confident and a lot more involved. There was a little bump in the road last year. It was a tough one to handle, but I was ready to come back after this summer. I put in a lot of work and kind of changed my mentality. With a new coaching staff, it was a fresh start. You get some opportunities, so it's a little different there. I've just got to keep playing and keep going.
OLIVE: How much did competing in Da Beauty League help you prepare for this season?
BJUGSTAD: I guess, for me, because I've been injured a lot over the last couple years it was good to stay in game flow over the summer. I know a lot of guys like to take breaks, but since I've been injured and missed a lot of games, it's good for me to be on the ice. I had fun with it. As long as you enjoy it and are working hard, that's the key. Hopefully they continue to do that throughout the summers because it's pretty helpful.
OLIVE: You've played under five head coaches during your time with the Panthers. As we approach the halfway point of the season, what have you enjoyed about working with new bench boss Bob Boughner and his staff?
BJUGSTAD: Since they came in, the message, the systems, everything is black and white - there's no gray area. They've done a really good job with us. Obviously there's transition with systems and stuff, but I feel like as a team we've learned quite a bit and we can just keep getting better from here. Since Day 1, they've got the message across of what our identity needs to be, and I think that's important. It's really starting to come together now.
OLIVE: After a season-long five-game winning streak, the Panthers are now 6-3-1 in the past 10 games. What do you think has contributed most to the club's recent turnaround?
BJUGSTAD: Well, we're on the same page. I think it's important that everyone's relying on one another and trusting one another. If someone messes up, we're covering for each other. It's very minor things that can cause you to win a game and I think we're touching up on things. I think that's been a big key to our success.
OLIVE: I know you have a friend or two on Team USA's 2018 World Junior Championship squad. What did you think of Team USA's 4-3 shootout victory over Team Canada at a frigid and snowy New Era Field in Buffalo on Dec. 29?
BJUGSTAD: I was fortunate enough to play a few years, including in Buffalo in 2011. I know Riley Tufte pretty well. I talked to him after that game and I'm pretty pumped for him. It's a fun game to watch, especially on the outdoor ice. That was something different. I was over at [Panthers defenseman Keith] Yandle's watching it - another fellow American on the team; not many of us. We were rooting them on. It's just fun to see the excitement those kids have got going. I think they can have a good tournament.
OLIVE: You competed for Team USA twice at the U-20 World Junior Championship, winning a bronze medal in 2011. Where does that experience rank in your career thus far?
BJUGSTAD: At that age, it's a big deal. You watch the older generations play before you and it's your goal to play for Team USA someday. If you're fortunate to put on the jersey, it's a pretty exhilarating experience. It ranks up there, definitely. Any time you get to throw on that USA jersey and play for your country, it's awesome."