The start of the Florida Panthers’ season, albeit a steady one, has been somewhat marred by injuries to Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad and Jussi Jokinen, and not even when the Panthers got some good news on the injury front could they completely avoid a bit of bad news, as well.
Word came Monday that Bjugstad, 24, has been medically cleared for a return to action after missing the first 19 games of the season due to a hand injury.
“We are excited for Nick’s return,” said Florida’s president of hockey operations Dale Tallon. “He is a foundational player for us.”
The hope will be that Bjugstad comes into the lineup and produces like he had during the first two years of his career, because if so, he can provide a big boost to a Florida offense that hasn’t exactly had quite the punch it did last season.
Through the early part of the campaign, the Panthers are scoring at a 2.68 goals per game rate, down from the 2.83 mark the team maintained throughout the 2015-16 campaign. And Bjugstad, while he had a tough season with his lowest career goal total, can realistically slot back into the lineup and provide another potential 20-goal scorer to the Panthers’ attack.
During Bjugstad’s rookie campaign in 2013-14, he notched 16 goals and 28 points in 76 games, and he followed that up with a 24-goal, 43-point sophomore campaign before taking a dip to 15 goals and 34 points this past season. That said, while the overall production was the lowest of Bjugstad’s career, his .51 points per game was the second-best mark in his three seasons in the big league.
But Bjugstad’s downturn in production can be blamed, at least in part, on the injury difficulties that have followed him throughout the early part of his career.
Bjugstad missed five games due to a concussion in his rookie season, missed the last 10 games of the season due to a lower-body injury in 2014-15, and missed 15 games in 2015-16 due to migraines and potential concussion symptoms. Making matters worse, he ended the 2015-16 season by missing Florida’s final post-season game due to a head injury.
One way to get more offense out of Bjugstad might be to slide him up the lineup, even possibly to the wing, if there appears to be a fit. That could even be more beneficial with the injury to Huberdeau. However, it appears Bjugstad will be starting on the third line for the Panthers, which is where he saw himself slide to at the end of the 2015-16 season.
Bjugstad had been a regular member of the top-six in the past two seasons, averaging more than 16 minutes per game, but skated only 15:30 per game in 2015-16, going from a regular member of the top-six to a middle-six player who was more heavily featured on the third line. In practice Monday, he skated on the apparent third line with rookie Denis Malgin and Colton Sceviour.
Bjugstad’s return, however, was met with the loss of defenseman Alex Petrovic. After blocking a shot in a 6-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs late last week, the 24-year-old rearguard will be out eight weeks with a broken ankle.
Through 16 games, Petrovic has largely been utilized as a third-pairing blueliner, but the loss is significant in that the Panthers defense thins out big time after the top four. Petrovic was taking the role of the fifth defenseman with Mark Pysyk as the sixth, with Jakub Kindl as the alternate, though he’s only seen two games.
With Petrovic out long-term, the Panthers will need to find a solution that fits for longer than a handful of games, and that could mean highly touted rookie Ian McCoshen gets a look during Petrovic’s absence.
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