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NICK BJUGSTAD: Center of Attention

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The Panthers' top line had a new look once again as Drew Shore -- recently recalled from the minors -- joined the fray for Tuesday's practice.

Brad Boyes, who along with Aleksander Barkov and Sean Bergenheim has served as Florida's top trio the past few months, was out as his wife Elissa was in labor with the couple's second child.

When the Panthers return from their Olympic hiatus Thursday against the visiting Capitals, Florida's top line will continue to have Boyes and Bergenheim -- only rookie Nick Bjugstad replaces the injured Barkov at center.

"It's unfortunate that we lost Barkov but this is a great opportunity,'' Bjugstad said. "It's a tough loss but we have to fill roles, step it up. I have to take this opportunity and see what happens.''

Barkov is out indefinitely after apparently re-injuring the knee that cost him four games with the Panthers before the break.

Barkov, 18, was hurt representing Finland in Sochi.

"It's always fun to play with great players and Barkov was there and it's fun to see how Bjugstad has evolved as a player,'' Bergenheim said. "It's going to be fun but things are going to change a bit. These are two different players. We have to find chemistry, do new things.''

Coach Peter Horachek said promoting Bjugstad to Florida's top line is a natural progression.

Bjugstad, 21, is enjoying a fine second rookie season of sorts as he played in 11 games at the end of last season following his departure from the University of Minnesota.

Florida didn't necessarily want to rush Bjugstad and play his at the NHL level so soon, yet that small window with the Panthers seems to be paying dividends now.

Bjugstad, who scored his first NHL goal in his final game of last season, has 13 goals and 10 assists in 52 games this season.

"You can't teach size,'' Horachek said. "His reach, his skating ability is so good, I've been surprised when he's come out of the corners with the puck. He has great strength, real ability. To do that against the best players in the world is a big thing. He really wants to get better.''

Horachek was the coach of Florida's AHL team in San Antonio at the beginning of the season and it was thought Bjugstad would start his season there.

After missing all of training camp and the first two weeks of the season because of a concussion, Bjugstad started with the Panthers as then-coach Kevin Dineen felt Florida would be better off using his offensive skill.

Bjugstad, who still lives at the 'vacation village' the team uses as temporary residence, never did end up in San Antonio. And although Horachek says he feels Bjugstad may have hit the so-called rookie wall a few weeks back, the nearly three week break has rejuvenated him.

"I missed a whole month and all I did was watch hockey,'' Bjugstad said. "I was fortunate to recover as quick as I did. It all worked out. I'm not glad I got the concussion, but it did make me realize what a privilege it is to play. It makes you realize how much you love the game.''

-- Horachek wasn't happy with his team's lackluster effort at practice on Tuesday -- the fifth workout of the Olympic break. Florida will practice in Coral Springs again on Wednesday.

According to a Panthers' spokesman, all practices at the IceDen in Coral Springs will start at 11 a.m. through the end of the season.

I always try to update the practice schedule on my Twitter feed so check it out.

Gameday skates -- and those off days sandwiched between home games -- are usually closed at the arena.

-- Aside from Barkov and Tomas Kopecky (concussion), the Panthers appear to be pretty healthy coming out of the break. Both of those aforementioned players were hurt at the Olympics.

 

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