For all the talk of smaller forwards deserving legitimate chances to crack NHL rosters, there’s still no denying that larger options have a natural advantage over smaller ones, especially in a physical sport like hockey. Most smaller players make up for it by oozing tremendous amounts of skill, but there’s still nothing harder to stop than a giant steamrolling his way to the front of the net.
Nick Bjugstad is one such giant. Standing at 6’6″ and weighing 218 pounds, he is bigger than most of the opposing skaters he lines up against each night. Few players can match his size and strength, and when those are combined with an impressive shot and good offensive skills, it’s a recipe for a prolific NHL goal scorer.
Through his first two seasons, Bjugstad looked to be such a player. He posted a 16-22-38 stat line as a rookie, where he played in 76 games for the last-place Panthers, leading them in scoring. He improved during his sophomore campaign, netting 24 goals and adding 14 assists for 43 points in 72 games. Bjugstad was again the team’s leader goal scorer and had produced at a 30-goal pace. It was expected by many that he would hit the 30-goal mark if he played a full 82 games.
The young sniper’s third full NHL season hasn’t quite gone as planned, as the 23-year-old has dealt with injuries and struggled to score while the rest of the team experiences success. Bjugstad has only managed 10 goals and 10 assists in 43 games, a middling amount of production. His current goals-per-game pace would mean he wouldn’t even hit the 20-goal mark in a full 82 game season, and his points-per-60 rate in all situations has declined this year to the lowest it’s been in his career.
This type of decline is cause for concern. Usually when a 22-year-old forward has a strong season, one would hope for improvement and not decline. Here’s a good look at just how far Bjugstad has dropped.
Last year, the lanky sniper ranked 97th out of 383 forwards who played at least 500 minutes in all situations, placing him in the 74th percentile (very good second line player, borderline top line player). This year, Bjugstad only ranks 173rd out of the 383 forwards who have played 300 minutes in all situations, which places him in the 55th percentile (below average second line player). He went from almost being a first line player to almost being a third line player, which is an alarming drop considering that he should actually be improving this season.
There’s no doubt that Bjugstad is struggling to produce offensively in a season where he was expected to take a step forward. It’s never encouraging when a young player fails to meet expectations based on his production earlier in his career, but in Bjugstad’s case, there’s reason to expect that the coaching staff currently isn’t putting him in the best position to succeed.
Before we start looking at his usage, we need to know what type of player Bjugstad is. Despite having strong seasons in terms of production, he has never really impressed when it comes to shot attempt metrics. He’s been solid, and seeing as he still hasn’t hit his prime, there can’t really be too many complaints with Bjugstad’s two-way play.
Here are his shot attempt and scoring chance numbers for the 191 career games Bjugstad has suited up for.
Overall, there’s not much to indicate that he’ll become a dominant top line player. The numbers suggest that Bjugstad had the potential to become a contributor in the top-six, but there isn’t evidence to suggest he’ll be a No. 1 option.
That doesn’t mean he can’t still be one of the team’s better forwards, and the goal scoring prowess he showcased last season proves that. The 24-goal season wasn’t exactly a fluke. Bjugstad is an elite shooter. His individual shots-on-goal-per-60 minutes was 29th in the league last year. He’s shown flashes of that goal scoring prowess this year, totaling seven goals in his first 20 games (a 29-goal pace).
In order for a player like Bjugstad to succeed, then, he needs to be working with linemates who can get him the puck. He isn’t exactly a dominant possession player, and won’t be retrieving the puck and skating it through the neutral zone, then blowing by the opposition to create a Grade A scoring chance for himself.
He can create shot attempts for himself if he has to, but they usually aren’t great scoring chances, mainly because there isn’t a lot of pre-shot movement for the goalie to keep track of. From the Passing Stats Project, we know if a shot is preceded by multiple passes, it’s more likely to result in a goal.
When he’s working with teammates who can distribute the puck, he’s able to slot into open areas of the ice and find the back of the net. When he has to do it all on his own, scoring goals becomes a little bit harder.
Bjugstad’s poor production this season really is the result of his past 20 games, where he’s only managed three goals and five assists.
In those 20 contests, his most common linemates have been Brandon Pirri, Logan Shaw and Quinton Howden. Shaw and Howden are both incredibly weak possession players who can’t create for their linemates. Their overall scoring chance numbers are below 45 percent, and their relative numbers are below -6.5 percent. They just aren’t NHL-caliber hockey players. As a result, Bjugstad’s shot rate has dropped, from 9.8 to 7.56.
Pirri is not the type of player who can feed Bjugstad the puck. If anything, he’s more of a shooter. Pirri’s shot attempt rate is 16.2, while Bjugstad’s is 13.9. It’s hard for the duo to create a passing sequence when both rifle the puck on goal at every opportunity they get.
Pirri shoots the puck more often than “Big Nick” does, and isn’t much of a playmaker. The two don’t mix well, and in 341 minutes together over the past two seasons, the duo has a combined on ice shooting percentage of 4.4 percent when together.
The idea that Bjugstad doesn’t mesh well with other pure shooters is supported by the fact that his on ice shooting percentage in 351 minutes alongside Jimmy Hayes–a player with little playmaking ability and a high shot rate–is only 6.5 percent.
When he plays with passing wingers who get him the puck the story changes. Below is a short list of playmaking wingers that Bjugstad has played at least 200 minutes alongside that past two seasons and their shared on ice shooting percentage.
The shooting percentages for all three are over 7.5 percent, a drastic improvement from the 6.5 percent total seen with Hayes and the 4.4 percent seen with Pirri.
There’s a chance that this is all random variance, but it does seem like Bjugstad needs playmaking wings to get him the puck in order to produce goals. He isn’t a dominant possession player who can do it all by himself, and he already had a relatively productive start to the season, scoring seven goals in 20 games while playing on the team’s top two lines (with wingers such as Reilly Smith, Jussi Jokinen, Jaromir Jagr, and Jonathan Huberdeau). It’s not a coincidence that when his linemate quality plummeted, so did his production.
The Panthers haven’t given him those playmaking wings this season, as they have in the past. If the team wants to get Bjugstad’s offense going again, they should slot him in between two playmakers, such as Jonathan Huberdeau and Jaromir Jagr. It might take some time, but Bjugstad should return to lighting the lamp consistently. So long as his linemates don’t get downgraded again.