When the blistering hot Vincent Trocheck was forced out of the lineup due to a fractured fibula, the first question on the mind of many was who would be able to pick up where the emerging young center left off. The answer to that question turned out to be Nick Bjugstad, who has gradually ratcheted up his level of play over the past several weeks.
Those who have been watching the Panthers this season had every reason to be worried when Vincent Trocheck went hobbling off the ice on March 29th against the Maple Leafs after blocking a P.A. Parenteau slap shot while killing a penalty. The 23-year old forward had been enjoying a career-year and had been tied with Jussi Jokinen for the team lead in points (15) and goals (6) before the injury since March 1st. Not only that, but he had been centering one of the league’s most productive lines over the past several months and essentially drove most of the team’s offense.
However, with Trocheck out of the lineup for at least 3 or for 4 weeks, the Panthers looked to Nick Bjugstad to try to replace the injured center’s production at both ends of the ice. Bjugstad had been playing on the 3rd line with newcomers Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell, and if we’re honest with ourselves, it wasn’t working out nearly as well as many of us expected it would. The line was being out-scored and out-possessed at 5v5, and each of the 3 players began trending down possession-wise after they began playing together.
In just the 3rd game of Bjugstad playing with Jokinen and Trocheck, his confidence was already up. The Minnesota-native came up with a huge, pinpoint pass from just above the goal line on the power play to tie the game at 3 against the Canadiens in the 3rd period on April 2nd, and it appears as though that’s what sparked his strong play over the past couple of weeks as he’s gone without a point just once in the 7 games since then. During those 7 games, Bjugstad has 4 goals and 3 assists, and since March 30th, he’s been the Panthers’ 2nd-best possession player at 5v5 behind Reilly Smith with a Corsi For% of 58.85. Unsurprisingly, right behind Bjugstad is Jussi Jokinen, so clearly the line has clicked despite the absence of Trocheck.
Looking at the 25-game rolling average of Bjugstad’s score- and venue-adjusted Corsi For%, we can see a huge difference in how he’s been playing since the tail end of March compared to how he was playing before that since the beginning of the season. For almost the entire season, Bjugstad has been below 50%, but ever since being put on the 2nd line with Jokinen and Smith, he’s elevated his game. Of course, one also has to factor in that Smith and Jokinen are very good at driving possession, however, we can see that Bjugstad is doing some really good things on his own rather than being carried by the production of others.
Out of all of the games Bjugstad has played since Trocheck went down, Sunday’s game 3 against the Islanders was one of his best this season. Not only did he score a goal, but he was looking like his 2014-15 season self as he went back to the basics by using his body to his advantage and putting pucks towards the net.
In this play, Bjugstad goes wide to the net, completes a quick give-and-go with Teddy Purcell, and continues towards the net at which point he shoots the puck at Greiss for a quality chance. It’s important to point out that he doesn’t stop skating but rather drives towards the net despite there being two defenseman attempting to prevent the shot attempt. He also took advantage of Pulock being flat-footed and that allowed him to get the shot off. Last season, Bjugstad scored several times with this move, so this is a sign of him going back to what has worked in the past.
Bjugstad’s success comes when he uses his body to protect the puck and ward off defenders, and it’s something he got away from earlier in the season as he tried working back into a groove. In this play, Bjugstad does not shy away from forcing his way towards the puck even if it means shoving Cal Clutterbuck out of the way. Clutterbuck may be 5’11”, but him and Bjugstad both weigh in at 218 pounds, and considering the Islanders 4th-liner is a pretty tough customer, this isn’t something that comes easy. After getting control of the puck, he’s able to send it to Ekblad at the point who gets a shot off at the net. Bjugstad didn’t need Jokinen or Smith to execute this play, in fact Smith was double-teamed in the left corner which led to the puck coming free for Bjugstad.
Bjugstad is also a pretty good skater when he gets going, and he’s been carrying the puck up the ice a lot more lately and with a lot of confidence too. By carrying the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone, Bjugstad gets all 5 (FIVE) Islanders to focus their attention on him which opens up the entire slot and left side of the zone as you can see in the frozen frame below:
Once he gets his shot off, the rebound lands right in front of Huberdeau (the other Panther on the ice at the end of the clip) who gets a shot off as well. Bjugstad could’ve just dumped it in and had Huberdeau go after it in the left corner since he was essentially left all alone, but he knows that the game is in overtime where any shot is a good one, and he ended up creating another shot attempt as a result too.
In this clip above, we see once again that Bjugstad is continuing to use his frame to protect the puck and drive hard to the net. He once against catches Pulock flat-footed at the blue line and is able to power past him. He’s at a bad angle and on his backhand to so he tries to throw the puck to Jokinen who sneaks into the low slot, rather than give up an opportunity deep in the zone, similar to how he fed Huberdeau for a goal in the very first clip of this post. Bjugstad is beginning to take it upon himself to get the puck towards the net however he can, and his big frame helps with that.
While part of his uptick in possession performance can be attributed to Jokinen and Smith being his wingers (they’ve been the Panthers’ best performers all year long), we’re also able to see how he’s working to create offense on his own; he’s tied for 4th amongst players in the playoffs with 13 shots on goal. Bjugstad also had 2 takeaways in game 3 and only further support the fact that he’s playing a much improved game as of late.
This play above came late in overtime and he was again able to achieve the goal of getting the puck towards the net. After getting physical with a tentative Nikolai Kulemin, Bjugstad fishes the puck out from the skates of 3 Islander players and gets free. The puck ended up sliding towards Thomas Greiss who covered it up, but the puck pursuit and aggressiveness of Bjugstad was top-notch; who knows what would’ve happened had he been able to chip it into the corner or back for Jokinen and Smith.
In this final clip above, Bjugstad makes taking the puck off Travis Hamonic look so easy. Hamonic, who measures in at 6’2″, 208 pounds, is leaned into by Bjugstad in the corner and has the puck taken away from him with one hand. This is in the offensive zone too, so not only do the Panthers regain possession, but it opens up the door for more shot attempts. And as we know, the more shots attempts that are taken, the more likely it is that the puck will go into the net.
With Trocheck’s return to the lineup imminent, it’s going to be a tough decision when it comes to putting together the forward lines after the Huberdeau, Barkov, Jagr line. Nick Bjugstad had been very good with Jokinen and Smith while Trocheck has performed very well with them too. It’s possible that Trocheck could slot in on the 3rd line with Hudler and Purcell to get back into the swing of things, and maybe that line will end up working out as his speed will bring something that has been sorely lacking on that line all year long.
Either way, it’s a good problem to have and the Panthers can’t be upset as they’ll be getting a really good player back in the lineup. Fortunately, the Panthers haven’t missed too much of a beat as Bjugstad has stepped up in a fashion similar to what Trocheck did when the former Golden Gopher was sidelined for all of December.