SUNRISE, Fla. - Nick Bjugstad is ready to move forward.
After a stellar performance against the New York Islanders in last season's Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Bjugstad, who tallied four points (2-2-4) in five games during the heated playoff series, entered the 2016-17 season optimistic that he could turn that playoff momentum into a breakout campaign with the Florida Panthers.
Unfortunately, a fluke injury would derail his season before it even started.
An upper-body injury sustained during the preseason led Bjugstad to miss the first 19 games of the regular season, the first of several hiccups in an admittedly up-and-down season in which the 24-year-old forward struggled to stay healthy and settle down long enough to get a strong foothold in the lineup.
"It's no fun to start the year off like that," Bjugstad said after cleaning out his locker at the 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 fluke-y 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."
The No. 19 pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, Bjugstad has already proven to be a dynamic goal scorer when he's at 100 percent. He led the Panthers in 2013-14 with 38 points (16-22-38) and in 2014-15 with 24 goals, despite missing 15 games that season due to injuries. His 6-foot-6, 218-pound frame is a rare asset for a forward with his high-end skillset, and as the young forward continues to develop he'll most likely find even more ways to use that size to his advantage.
Yet, after recording just 14 points (7-7-14) in 54 games this past season, Bjugstad isn't focused on what he has done, but on what he needs to do in order to help the Panthers contend for a Stanley Cup. Whether he's lining up at center or on the wing, Bjugstad, upbeat as ever, is ready to transform himself into whatever piece the organization needs to complete its championship puzzle.
"I'll play wherever they want me to play," said Bjugstad, a traditional center who has only recently begun to see playing time on the wing. "I like this team and I want to do whatever I can. Whether it's third-line, fourth-line, or whatever, I'll play any position."
In an effort to get a head start on rediscovering his scoring touch, Bjugstad chose to kick off his summer not with a vacation, but rather by competing for Team USA at the 2017 IIHF World Championship in Paris, France and Cologne, Germany. In eight tournament games, the Blaine, Minn. native looked confident and effective, picking up a goal and three assists.
"I obviously didn't have a full season, so it'll be good to get some more games in and maybe find my confidence a little," Bjugstad said of the World Championship. "I'm looking forward to it. I'm just going to go out there and play, have fun with it. It was obviously frustrating times this year, for myself. It'll be good." Looking ahead, as he continues to distance himself from the disappointment of this past season, Bjugstad is ready to prove that, just like his preseason injury, his recent struggles are nothing more than a fluke.
"It wasn't the season I wanted," said Bjugstad, who had recorded at least 15 goals in each of his first three seasons in the NHL. "I felt that I could have done a lot more to help the team. Like I said, I'm going to try and stay positive and do my best to comeback and help this team out whatever way I can. I love being here and I love this team. I'm looking forward to next year."
On the power play, Bjugstad's mentality is fairly simple: let it rip.
When the extra attacker was the ice this past season, Bjugstad's 15.98 shots per 60 minutes were the most among Florida's forwards, according to HockeyAnalysis.com.
And although he finished with just one power play goal, it's safe to assume that high-volume shooting like that will eventually result in at least a few well-deserved goals next season.
Bjugstad earned third-star honors after scoring a pair of big goals to help lead the Panthers to a thrilling 6-5 overtime victory over the San Jose Sharks on Feb. 16.
Bjugstad, who has been somewhat of a Shark killer thus far in his career, recording five points (4-1-5) in seven career games against San Jose, also finished the game tied for the team lead in shots (3) and hits (4).
"It was a crazy game, back and forth. A lot of goals scored, a fun game to be part of and (Huberdeau) came up big there at the end," Bjugstad said after the game. "It's not necessarily the games you want to get into at this point in the season, but we found a way."
Video: FLA@SJS: Bjugstad sweeps in a one-timer for second
GOAL OF THE YEAR
It's a Bjugy-Blast!
While on the power play, Bjugstad, dropping down to one knee in the process, lets go of a one-time blast from the center of the left circle that beats Flames goaltender Chad Johnson to give the Panthers an early 1-0 lead.
Video: CGY@FLA: Bjugstad fires home one-timer for PPG