CORAL SPRINGS – Eleven years ago this month, a promising rookie center drafted in the first round joined the Panthers for the final weeks of the season. In his NHL debut on April 3, 2002, he scored a goal against the Penguins at home.
“I thought this is easy,” Stephen Weiss recalled Friday. “After that were the six hardest games I’ve ever played in this league. I realized I had a lot of work to do.”
Nick Bjugstad will make his NHL debut Saturday night at home against the Capitals, the first of 11 games left in this lockout-shortened season for which he’ll be with the team after signing a three-year entry-level contract on Wednesday. And if there’s anyone who know what he’s in store for, it’s Weiss, the longest-tenured Panther.
Weiss, drafted fourth overall by the Panthers in 2001, was brought up from juniors late in the 2001-02 season and played in seven games, making his debut on his 19th birthday. The 20-year-old Bjugstad, drafted 19th overall in 2010, is about to break into the league in similar fashion.
“It will be a fun first game,” Bjugstad said, adding, “It will be surreal for me. I've always wanted to play in the NHL ever since I was little and it's finally happening. It’s good when you get a little nervous. You’re on your toes a little bit, so I’ll be ready to go. I’m sure the adrenaline will be going.”
While there are striking similarities in how Weiss broke into the NHL and Bjugstad is doing so, Weiss pointed out there also “different circumstances.” He was coming off three years in the OHL playoffs playing against teenagers.
Bjugstad just finished his third season of college hockey at the University of Minnesota. The 5-foot-11 Weiss also noted that he weighed about 170 pounds when he made his debut – and, he added, that was back when NHL rules allowed clutching and grabbing. Bjugstad is listed at 6-6, 220 pounds.
Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said Friday it remains to be seen how much ice time Bjugstad will get during this 11-game stretch, but inferred that it will be limited at first, stressing that the top priority will be helping him transition to the NHL. For Weiss, a dream debut was followed by some tough times.
“My first year, just not playing a lot was tough. Trying to play eight to 10 minutes a night and contribute offensively like you’re used to, it’s tough to do and probably not realistic,” he said. “My advice to [Bjugstad] would be to enjoy it, take as much in as you can in these  games, go back in the summer and train like an animal, come back in good shape and be ready to go.”
Added Weiss: “Unless you’re Sidney Crosby or [Steven] Stamkos, guys like that that are the best players in the world, you’re going to have a tough time early scoring goals and doing the things you’ve done in juniors or college. You’ve just got to stick with the process and take as much in as you can from guys that have been around and been through similar situations, and just don’t get down on yourself. Realize it’s a process and you’ve got to learn. When things aren’t going great, don’t get too down, and when things are going good, you can’t get too high as well.”
Bjugstad said Friday he’s trying not to focus on the pressure or expectations that might on him.
“I realize it’s a really tough league, and there’s a lot of great players. I’m going to have to work really hard, do what I can out there and see what happens,” he said, adding that he plans to use his size to play physical, and also fast on both ends of the ice.
“I’m going to stay positive even if it’s not going my way. I’ve got to get my feet wet here this first game and go from there.”
Bjugstad considered leaving Minnesota after his sophomore season, but said he wanted to “develop as a leader” and try again to win a NCAA title. He fell short when the Gophers lost in regionals to Yale in overtime last Friday. He said he didn’t give much thought to returning for his senior season next year, noting, “It was a good three years there, but it was time for me to move on and take on more of a challenge.”
Because Bjugstad will be with the Panthers for this final stretch of games, they lose a year of control over his free-agent rights.
“We understood what the consequences are, but he’s an asset we wanted to get signed and get him under the fold and get him some games and get him some experience and have him indoctrinated to our team now,” General Manager Dale Tallon said Wednesday.
“This will be a good learning experience for him, a good learning curve. If he does well, it will make it that much easier for him at training camp next year. It’s a good chance for us to evaluate him and for him to gain experience in a shortened season.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun