Florida Panthers: How Nick Bjugstad is improving Florida’s first line

SUNRISE, FL - DECEMBER 30: Artturi Lehkonen
SUNRISE, FL - DECEMBER 30: Artturi Lehkonen /

The Florida Panthers are a franchise lucky to have two centerpieces of the team’s future, and are even more lucky that Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau work well together.

Both are skilled forwards with much to offer going forward with their top-tier playmaking, making strides in finding new pieces to their game.

The two have been put with many forwards throughout their time in Sunrise, with unsuccessful experiments such as Brad Boyes, Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, and Jonathan Marchessault.

This year, head coach Bob Boughner began the season with Evgenii Dadonov as the first-line winger. Despite the strong start, the line wasn’t made to be, mustering a weak eight goals before Dadonov’s injury on November 25th against Chicago. The injury kept him out for around three weeks, and the search for another first-line winger began anew.

Recently, Boughner rolled the dice and deployed Nick Bjugstad next to Barkov. Bjugstad had previously been the third line center, often working with Denis Malgin and a mix of Jared McCann and Connor Brickley, players that are considerably just complements to Bjugstad’s ability, for now.

Playing with two players better than him has extremely improved Nick’s end product, with four points (one goal, three assists) in his last eight games.

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The move has also greatly improved Jonathan Huberdeau. The 24 year-old’s skill set has turned him into an elite passer with a solid shot, but Boughner felt he wasn’t getting enough of that shot. Huberdeau revealed his coach was encouraging him to shoot after the Cats’ 1-0 win against Ottawa, which Huberdeau scored the game’s only goal (assisted by Bjugstad).

Huberdeau has already seen an increase in shots with Boughner than under last year’s head coach Tom Rowe. The left-winger shot the puck just 86 times in 31 games last season, and has shot 111 times in 41 games this season.

Johnny has tried to build back towards the strong 12.5 shooting percentage from his rookie season, and Boughner has helped him reach new heights, as his shooting percentage has reached 13.5% this year, and the winger has tallied 15 goals, the same amount he recorded during the 2014-15 regular season.

The introduction of Nick Bjugstad to the first line has been dynamite for Bob Boughner’s Panthers over the past few games. Not only has Bjugstad’s end product, which regressed massively last season, improved, but he has created time and space for Jonathan Huberdeau with his A+ movement and passing.

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With their growing connection and the defensive ability of Aleksander Barkov allowing them to push up in the attack, this first line could seriously grow to be a top line in the NHL. It may be safe to say, that, both Barkov and Huberdeau may have found themselves their first line partner (in Nick Bjugstad himself).