Nick Bjugstad made the difficult decision to forgo the NHL for one more season and return to Minnesota.
By TYLER MASONFS North
MINNEAPOLIS —Nick Bjugstad wasn't the first Gophers hockey player to face the tough decision of whether to leave early or come back for another year, and he certainly won't be the last. And like those that weighed the options before, it wasn't an easy choice for Bjugstad.
In the end, though, the Gophers' top goal scorer from a year ago opted to return to the University of Minnesota for his junior season.
"It took me a while to decide," Bjugstad said. "Obviously, I just wanted to weigh my pros and cons and really make sure I made the right decision. In the long run, I just felt another year at school would help me develop."
Several factors played into the decision. Of course, it will give the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Bjugstad another year to hone his craft at the college level — although his stats from 2011-12 are already rather impressive. As a sophomore, Bjugstad scored a team-high 25 goals in 40 games and chipped in 17 assists. Those numbers were up from eight goals and 12 assists during his freshman season.
Aside from the individual development, Bjugstad saw the potential the Gophers have as a team this year. Minnesota came within a game of playing in the NCAA national championship, losing to Boston College in the Frozen Four. The Gophers return the core of last year's team that won the WCHA, and Bjugstad is certainly a key piece to the offense.
"I think our team coming back, on paper we're pretty good," Bjugstad said. "We're another contender this year. Hopefully we can put another good season like we did last year."
Florida Panthers took Bjugstad with the 19th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, prior to his freshman year at Minnesota. For any 20-year-old, the lure of a professional contract is enticing, although Bjugstad said money wasn't a factor in his decision.
At the time of Bjugstad's decision to return — which came in mid-July — the possibility of an NHL lockout wasn't on his mind. But with the NHL currently locked out and at least the first two weeks of the league's regular season canceled, maybe Bjugstad's decision wasn't so bad after all. At least now he'll be skating and playing in games instead of waiting around for the player's association and NHL owners to come to an agreement on how to share the league's revenues.
"It's tough to see the NHL lockout," Bjugstad said. "Obviously, you want to see hockey. But it makes you feel a little better (about the decision). I didn't really weigh too much on the decision with the lockout just because of speculation and you didn't really know how it was going to go in mid-summer. Hopefully they can get the lockout figured out here any time soon."
Bjugstad wasn't the only Gopher who could have turned pro this past offseason. Last year's team included 18 players who had been drafted by NHL teams, with 12 of those players returning this year.
"I think that the bottom line is I think they like it here," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "They think that they have more room to grow as a person and as a player. I think the academic component can creep into that a little bit, getting closer to a degree, which Nick at the end of this year will be very close after three years to graduating. I think all those things come into play."
Whatever went into Bjugstad's decision, the Gophers are glad he's back on campus for at least one more year. Minnesota's 2012-13 season officially starts next Friday with a two-game series against Michigan State at Mariucci Arena. But before the Gophers hit the ice, Bjugstad was already voted the WCHA Preseason Player of the Year by the media.
The Gophers are hoping there are more accolades to come for Bjugstad this year — perhaps punctuated with an NCAA title.
"Obviously it adds an interesting dynamic to our team, a power forward-type guy. A lot of speed. A lot of skill," junior defenseman Nate Schmidt of Bjugstad's return. "He's going to be one of the best players in college hockey this year. I don't think a lot of people can argue that."