Pop quiz: What do Sidney Crosby, Jamie Benn, Ryan Getzlaf, Jonathan Toews, Claude Giroux, Bobby Ryan, James Neal and Pavel Datsyuk have in common?
They’ve all scored fewer goals this NHL season than Nick Bjugstad, a player whose name you may have never even said aloud and was probably a waiver-wire pickup in your fantasy league.
As the slumping, goalie-diseased Florida Panthers fade from the East’s playoff picture, there is a positive story of individual success to be plucked beyond Aaron Ekblad’s Calder crusade or Jaromir Jagr’s indestructibility.
Bjugstad is not only putting the lie to the sophomore slump, he may turn out to be the biggest goal-getting bargain in the league long-term.
Built more in the fashion of an NBA centre than an NHL one, the six-foot-six, 218-pound Bjugstad handily leads all Panthers this season in goals (24) and points (43), despite averaging just the seventh-most ice-time among Florida’s forwards.
Part of that is due to his effectiveness on the power play (he has a team-high 12 points with the man-advantage). But more of it has to do with his poise, his accuracy (his team-high four shootout goals tie him for 12th league-wide), and his increased devotion to his defensive game.
“That’s how I found a bit of a scoring touch,” Bjugstad says. “That’s where it starts. Pucks go in if you’re doing to the right things in the defensive zone.”
The aw-shucks 22-year-old honed his game in his native Minneapolis, where he scored a goal a game for Blaine High School in arguably the country’s most competitive secondary school scene, then starred for the University of Minnesota while picking up a degree in business marketing.
He won a bronze medal for the U.S. at the 2011 junior world championships, a year after the Panthers drafted him 19th overall.
Despite scoring 16 goals (second-best on an offence-starved club) and leading the team in points as a rookie, Bjugstad says his leap to the NHL required intense study.
“My first game was a pretty big eye-opener,” he chuckles. “Ovechkin got a hat trick.
“Just going into the corner with some of the guys, it’s different. Guys are so much bigger and stronger and mature here,” he says. This coming from a guy framed like a young, Norwegian Michael Jordan. “Learning how to battle in the corners a little more was a big adjustment.”
Bjugstad credits his coaches and a veteran dressing room for teaching him the nuances of the pro game versus the NCAA. The goal-scoring knack he’s always had; it’s the other end of the rink that presents the challenge.
“Defensive zone was the biggest thing for me – learning that. Positioning and calming down. Don’t get too excited. If you get overexcited on some of these skilled guys, they’re going to take advantage of that and make you look silly. That was the main thing for me,” Bjugstad says.
That’s where confidence and scoring chances are born.
Bjugstad’s point production — he’s registered points in seven of his last nine outings — is no fluke. He leads all Panthers forwards in shot attempts for, and Ekblad raves about his teammate’s command on the man-advantage.
“He’s built our power play in some respects. He’s a calm player. He’s quick. He’s strong and brings a lot of confidence in the way he plays,” Ekblad says. “Just everything he does is with heart and passion—and that’s what you ask for.”
Bjugstad, out for a night in New York City, his favourite NHL road city, with Mom
From a general manager’s point of view, the other thing you ask for is value.
Compare Bjugstad’s goal-scoring to the league’s other second-year stars, and Florida may hold one the biggest offensive bargains for years to come.
Only four sophomores — Sean Monahan, Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Tomas Tatar — have scored more goals than Bjugstad this year, yet all of them play for talent-heavier clubs that rank among the NHL’s top eight offences. The Panthers’ O ranks 22nd.
“We’re not the fanciest team. We’re not the most skilled team,” Bjugstad says. “But we can be tough to play against in the offensive zone. Limiting turnovers is a big key for us.”
Further, all four of those sophomores will be free agents by 2017 or 2018, at which point they’ll surely demand big-time raises.
Bjugstad, however, is already locked up through 2020-21. His current salary cap hit of — brace yourself — $1.1 million, according to NHLNumbers.com, grows to a modest $4.1 million from 2016 onward. And the Panthers’ top-producing player won’t earn 5 million in real dollars until 2019-20.
Not bad for a player with the skill set to become just the second back-to-back goal-getter in nearly a decade.
Not since Olli Jokinen’s dominance from 2003 to 2008 has a Panther led the team in goals in consecutive seasons.
Big, blond, blue-eyed Bjugstad will be the one to end that drought. We’d bet $1.1 million on it.