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GOPHER HEADS SOUTH: Nick Bjugstad to Join Florida Panthers, Make NHL Debut on Saturday

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

It took Nick Bjugstad a little while to get back to the Panthers' director of media relations on Wednesday afternoon. He was too busy packing.

"I'm very excited,'' Bjugstad said when finally reached. "It's been pretty hectic today, but I'm very excited."

The Panthers signed Bjugstad to a three-year entry level contract on Wednesday. Bjugstad is flying south on Thursday and will be at Friday's practice at the Coral Springs Iceplex.

On Saturday, the 20-year-old center who was the 19th overall pick in 2010 will make his NHL debut.

"It was just kind of waiting it out to see what would happen, what the deal was,'' Bjugstad said. "Then I got the call. I'm pretty excited and thankful for what I've got going as well. It should be fun. It's a whirlwind. I'm packing up all my stuff, getting ready to get to Florida.

"It's pretty surreal. I just got done playing my final college game which was a tough one. But it makes it easier knowing I'm jumping into the NHL. It's very exciting. I'm sure the nerves will be going a little bit.''

Bjugstad said he wasn't thinking about joining the Panthers, not until the University of Minnesota's season surprisingly ended last week. The top-ranked Gophers were upset in the NCAA regionals in overtime by Yale.

Last summer, Bjugstad contemplated joining the Panthers but the lure of school, getting his degree and winning another national title for the Gophers was too much to turn back. Bjugstad said Wednesday he was 12 credits away from a degree in Business Marketing Education and could finish those up this summer.

"I didn't really think about what the next step was. I was focused on my season,'' he said. "It didn't end the way I wanted it to. I came back to win a national championship and things happen. We lost in overtime and that's a tough deal. But I thought this was right for my future, my development, to move onto the next level.

"I think I'm ready to go. I'm close to my degree and we'll see what happens there. I just think I'm ready to go.

"I want to get a feel for what the NHL is like. Thankfully the NHL is the opportunity I'm getting. It's pretty crazy it starts on Saturday.''