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His Coyotes teammates call Nick Bjugstad “Byoogie,” a nod to that troublesome J in his Norwegian surname.
Coach André Tourigny drops the J and calls him “Boogie” because it rolls a little more easily off his French-Canadian tongue.
Bjugstad’s Florida Panthers teammates used to call him “Rotisserie Chicken” because he couldn’t find parking one night when he was meeting them for dinner so he bailed, went to Publix super market instead and bought a rotisserie chicken.
Whatever the monikers, they are all terms of endearment. While “good in the room” is a common NHL cliché that normally elicits eye rolls or frowns of disbelief, in Bjugstad’s case, the cliché doesn’t capture the man. He’s a popular guy because of the way that he approaches life.
“He really shines a positive light on other people and I think that’s what makes him so special as a person, and definitely as a player, too,” linemate Lawson Crouse said.
“He’s been in the league for over 10 years (11) now. He’s played with a lot of solid, veteran NHL players and learned a lot of things so in just the same way I can pick up things from him. He’s definitely a great guy to have on the team to really help build and bring our team together.”
Which begs the question: What will the Coyotes do with Bjugstad at the March 3 trade deadline? Given his positive personality, his obvious leadership qualities and his premium position, the 11-year veteran center who can become an unrestricted free agent could help a playoff team in a depth role.
“That’s a decision that we’ll have to make in time,” GM Bill Armstrong said. “Obviously, we’re in the middle of a rebuild and trying to accumulate assets. But in the past, we’ve come to some conclusions where we didn’t move some guys and felt it was better for them to stay. We were comfortable with those decisions so that could be the case. We’ll see.”
After years of battling injuries — some that required surgery — Bjugstad looks more like the player who produced three straight 15-plus goal seasons for Florida and a career-high 49 points in 2017-18. Playing primarily on a chemistry-rich line with Crouse and Matias Maccelli (now injured), he has nine goals and 16 points in 35 games, putting him on pace for 21 goals and 37 points. He is also plus-9, the highest rating among Arizona’s forwards and, in this case, a telling read on how well he has played defensively despite some tough matchups.
“For a couple years in Minnesota, I was playing a fourth-line role which was foreign to me, but the focus was my defense so I think that helped me in that area,” he said. “I knew going into the summer and I’ve known the last couple of years that I still had [offense] in me, but I just couldn’t necessarily find the confidence with what I had going on.
“You’re gonna go through flurries where it goes well, and when it’s not, you’ve got to find ways to weather the storm.”
Bjugstad has weathered his share since he turned pro. Hand, groin and back injuries limited him to less than 65 games each of the past four seasons, and the drop in production relegated the 2010 19th overall pick to a pair of trades (to Pittsburgh and his home state of Minnesota).
“I didn’t have adversity at a young age where I was really challenged on an outside level,” he said. “I came from college so I was relied on to score. As a young, 20-year-old coming into the league, I look back and kind of chuckle. I was kind of clueless. I think a lot of us are.
“You come in kind of wide-eyed, not really knowing what to expect. You’re in the NHL and you’re trying to do your best. I think your mentality changes over time and you learn a lot. I definitely had some trials, tribulations and injuries and different stuff that I had to get through and sort through. At least mentally, I’ve grown and I’ve taken some steps.”
You’ll find a lot of players who feel sorry for themselves or blame others for their lack of achievement or runs of bad luck. In some cases, those are fair reactions, but Bjugstad never went down that road despite numerous opportunities to do so. He chalks the back injuries up to his own, poorly designed workouts, and he won’t even take credit for his sunny disposition.
“My mother’s an amazing human so I guess I credit that to her,” he said. “She always taught me to treat people with kindness and respect and I’ve always wanted to be a good teammate and be genuine around the locker room and have a good time and smile. The season can get long. You have to find ways to grow with your teammates. Obviously, there’s hard conversations to be had, but I’m kind of the guy in the room that tries to keep it light.
“Being a good human in pro sports; I think that’s how it should be. It’s the gratitude of being able to play a sport while at the same time I have a deep yearning to grow as a human, to be a good dad and husband, and to try to grow as a player. I kind of use hockey as a vehicle for that.”
Armstrong has to think long-term when evaluating what to do with Bjugstad. Part of the calculus is gauging the return on any potential deal, and then weighing that against the value that he brings to the ice and the culture that he and Tourigny have preached since day one.
“You really value the people in this game that are doing the right things every night, getting up in the morning and being the first at the rink, working on their game and living right,” Armstrong said. “You’ve got to have that in your culture when you go through the rebuild because of the tremendous amount of negativity that you face with all the losses. You’ve got to have good character people around and then as you grow with your younger players, it’s even more important.”
Tourigny has seen it firsthand.
“You never have enough good veterans,” he said. “You take one out and it can make a huge difference. It’s fragile. “I talked a lot about it last year, and you can see this year the impact of a guy like that. They shield the other guys and they are a model for the young guys. They know when to talk and what to say so I think it’s huge.”
The Coyotes’ current road trip has been a mini-run down memory lane for Bjugstad, who will face his original team at FLA Live Arena on Tuesday in Sunrise, Florida.
“It’s where I started my career and I had never really left Minnesota except for vacation so when I came here out of college, this was a new world to me,” he said. “I loved it. I loved the area, I loved the people I was with and the teammates, so it’s definitely near and dear to my heart. Every time I come back with a smile on my face, thinking of the memories and thinking of the opportunity I got here.”
All the same, Bjugstad isn’t feeling any sort of envy or yearning for another move.
“I’m not sitting here and [champing] at the bit for anything to really happen,” he said. “Whatever happens, I guess it’s meant to happen. I’m really enjoying my time here but whatever presents itself or doesn’t present itself, I’m prepared.
“I’m not BSing you when I say this. When you’re winning and beating teams you probably, on paper, shouldn’t be beating, it makes it even more fun. You’re doubted and kind of written off by a lot of people. That shows the character of a lot of these guys in this room. That says a lot about everybody. I think we’ve surpassed a lot of expectations. We want to keep doing that.”
Top photo of Nick Bjugstad via Getty Images
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