Nick Bjugstad doesn’t get out much these days. Such is life living through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
The 28-year-old Blaine native joked that the most exciting parts of his days this offseason were picking up groceries at the local Target and stopping at Dunn Brothers for an occasional cup of coffee. Talk about staying brand loyal to Minnesota.
Even when he used to go out, though, Bjugstad was recognized for his days as a standout captain with the Gophers men’s hockey team. And for his days as Minnesota Mr. Hockey at Blaine High School.
But not as an NHL player. That’s because Bjugstad’s eight-year NHL career has been rather low key to this point (110 goals and 207 assists in 439 games). He dealt with injuries while playing for the Florida Panthers and Pittsburgh Penguins, never developing into the star some thought he could be, and the Wild acquired him for pennies on the dollar this offseason.
Now the hometown kid is getting a huge opportunity with the hometown team.
All signs point to Bjugstad serving as the No. 1 center for the Wild’s Jan. 14 season opener against the Kings in Los Angeles. He has been flanked by Zach Parise and Kirill Kaprizov during training camp and the three of them already have started to develop chemistry.
“It’s definitely motivating for me,” Bjugstad said. “I want to come in and try to help the team the best I can and to the best of my ability. There’s got to be no second-guessing from my standpoint. Just go out and play.”
It’s a larger role that many envisioned for Bjugstad when the Wild traded a conditional draft pick for him this offseason. Most thought he would slide in as a depth player in the bottom six, but here he is auditioning to be a featured player in the top six.
You can’t teach size, and blessed with a 6-foot-6, 215-pound frame, Bjugstad certainly isn’t lacking in that area. Add in the fact that he has been a 20-goal scorer in the past, and it was enough for coach Dean Evason to test the waters in training camp.
“You see the size, the skill, the strength, the ability from afar,” Evason said. “To see it up close, as we have here in the last couple of days, it’s very impressive. We’re going to try people at different spots. We’ve liked what we’ve seen. It certainly looks good.”
Asked about Bjugstad playing No. 1 center, Parise gave a ringing endorsement, lauding his size and skill.
“I’m hoping we stick together and we can work on it and develop some chemistry,” Parise said. “I think we can work well together. Then, adding Kirill into the line, with the skill he’s got, we will do our best to help him along and make him feel as comfortable as we can and get him playing as well as he can, because he’s going to be a very good player.”
There won’t be a lack of skill around Bjugstad with Parise and Kaprizov by his side. In that sense, he is focused on using his body to create as much space as possible, then getting out of the way and letting them go to work.
“It excites me because those guys are hungry on the puck,” Bjugstad said. “That’s something I like to do on the forecheck, hunt pucks down, and create tough opportunities for the other team. I think it’s pretty clear I’m playing with skilled guys, so sometimes I may muck it up and get them the puck and let them shoot.”
While this might be a larger role than Bjugstad expected, he’s excited to run with it.
“I’ve played top six, and I’ve played in the bottom six,” he said. “I know what it’s like to have a little success there, and I know what it’s like to have some failures. I can kind of take those experiences and use that to my advantage here being a little older and being a little more experienced.
“You can’t play with fear,” Bjugstad added. “That’s the biggest thing. You can’t second-guess yourself. I want those guys to trust me. I’m going to put my best foot forward, and good things usually happen from there.”