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Nick Bjugstad chose Coyotes with eyes wide open

Craig Morgan Avatar
August 14, 2022

Nick Bjugstad is under no illusions about his one-year, $900,000 contract with the Coyotes. Despite the praise that all players heap upon their new teams when they arrive, this really isn’t about being a part of an up-and-coming team or the chance to win in 2022-23. The Coyotes won’t be good this season, Bjugstad probably won’t be with them when they emerge from this rebuild and he knows it.

That doesn’t mean that Bjugstad is approaching his latest situation with cynicism, however. That’s just not in his nature. As countless friends, family members and former teammates will tell you — including former teammates Ed Jovanovski and Alex Goligoski — Bjugstad is the ultimate team guy.

“He’s a good hockey player, but he’s a better person,” said his uncle, Scott Bjugstad, a former NHL player and Phoenix Roadrunner who helped guide Nick on his journey to the pros. “He just wants the chance to play.”

That latter fact is the primary reason why Bjugstad chose Arizona over other offers. It’s also why his agent, Ben Hankinson, said that Bjugstad never pursued returning to the Minnesota Wild despite the cool factor of playing for his home state team the past two seasons. There’s no escaping the transactional nature of this one-year Coyotes experiment, but in a perfect world, it will benefit both sides on and off the ice.

Bjugstad hopes to resuscitate his career by proving that he can still play a meaningful role and meaningful minutes in the NHL after so many debilitating and disheartening injuries. He also hopes to shepherd the team’s young and middle cores through the rebuild with the aforementioned leadership qualities.

The Coyotes hope that Bjugstad can achieve both of those things on a cost-effective contract. If he does, he’ll move the franchise one year closer to playoff contention. In return, he may earn himself another shot on another playoff contender, and perhaps deliver more draft capital to GM Bill Armstrong at the 2023 NHL trade deadline.

“I know how the game works, and if that is something that’s proposed at some point, I guess that’s a good problem for both sides,” Bjugstad said. “But I don’t even think like that. I almost have to approach the season by cutting it into thirds. You’ve got training camp and then the first half and second half of the season. 

“Right now, it’s about getting my feet set in training camp. I’m trying to be a part of this team and make this team as good as possible, including chemistry-wise and meshing well with some of these guys, but I am definitely comfortable with the business side of it because I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been traded, I’ve been basically capped out of Pittsburgh, and I know the deal. From an emotional standpoint, I’m not looking to try to control those outside factors. I’ll control what I can control. I know that’s clichéd but it’s true.”

The Florida Panthers selected Nick Bjugstad with the 19th overall pick in 2010. (Getty Images)

Bjugstad had the world at his feet a decade ago. He was named Minnesota Mr. Hockey in 2010 after a standout career at Blaine High School in which he led the Bengals to three straight playoffs in the state’s uber competitive prep hockey landscape. The Florida Panthers selected him 19th overall and he embarked on a three-year career at the University of Minnesota where he had 54 goals and 98 points in 109 games while leading the Golden Gophers to the Frozen Four in 2012.

He also competed in two World Junior Championships for the United States and one World Championship. He never had to play in the AHL before jumping to the NHL club, and in his first three seasons with Florida, he totaled 55 goals and 115 points, earning himself a six-year contract extension with the Panthers worth $24.6 million.

A series of injuries changed everything. The 2016-17 season brought a broken hand and what the team termed a lower-body injury that contributed to a then-career low 14 points. He rebounded in 2017-18 with 19 goals and 49 points, but groin and back injuries that necessitated surgery, coupled with a drop in production, led the Panthers to trade Bjugstad and forward Jared McCann to the Penguins for forwards Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan and three 2019 draft picks.

In each of the past three seasons, split between the Penguins and Wild, Bjugstad has not topped 17 points. The 57 games he played with Minnesota last season marked his highest game total since 2018-19.

“My career has basically been 10 years of trying to figure it out and, for better or for worse, it has forced me to really dig deep,” he said. “I never had injuries growing up and I was very fortunate to get the skill set I had and I had a lot of things go my way, but I think long term it’s going to help me as a person and from a learning standpoint, knowing that it’s not going to be easy for me. 

“Some guys go their whole career without being injured. For me, so far, it’s been a roller coaster, but I really try to just dwell on the positives and find different ways to train. It has helped me to become better connected with myself. I do a lot of breath work, a lot of cold tubs, a lot of things that stress my body in a good way and kind of put me more in tune with myself. On a deeper scale, I think that’s where I’ve benefited tremendously from this. It’s kind of brought me to a different point mentally, which I would say is positive for my overall health in life.”

Early last season, Bjugstad got the opportunity to play higher in Minnesota’s lineup at times. In January, in the last drill of a practice, teammate Mats Zuccarello slashed Bjugstad’s finger, resulting in a gruesome injury that necessitated another surgery. He missed several weeks and when he returned, he was relegated to a fourth-line player or a healthy scratch. He did not play on special teams.

It’s too early to say if that role will change in a rebuilt Coyotes lineup that lacks Minnesota’s talent and center depth. Ultimately, that decision will be up to coach André Tourigny and his staff, but Armstrong provided some insight into his view of Bjugstad’s role on the day that he signed him.

“We’ve always felt with him that he can score,” Armstrong said. “I can remember scouting him back in the day in Minnesota. We just felt like this guy has an ability to get us 20 to 25 goals in the year if we put him in the right situations.

“I don’t like sometimes when he’s on that third or fourth line. I think when you put him up the order and you put him on some power play, he can really do some damage. He’ll obviously have to execute and produce in that situation, but he’s going to get an opportunity here.”

Bjugstad can play center or wing. Last season, he posted a career-high 55.3-percent success rate on faceoffs while starting a career-high 58.4 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone.

“I’m gonna come in and make an impact in whatever way I can,” he said. “I’m getting a little more opportunity, possibly, to play a little bigger role than I have in the last few years, but I can play in different spots and my versatility has kind of been used in different ways. 

“Whatever my role is, I’m looking to break into it with confidence and a purpose. I’m not just hoping for the best; I’m kind of expecting the best.”

Because of all that Bjugstad has endured while maintaining a positive attitude, he has a lot of people in his corner, hoping that he can extend his career in a meaningful way.

“Just the work he had to do to get back from those back injuries — I mean, he couldn’t do anything for three months — makes you respect him,” Scott Bjugstad said. “He’s gotten to the point in his career where it doesn’t matter; it doesn’t affect them. Nothing does. If he’s playing first line, second line or fourth line, he just kind of just goes out and does his job. That’s who he is right now, a veteran, and that’s one of the reasons why you want guys like him. They don’t bitch. They just play.”

Top photo of Nick Bjugstad via Getty Images

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