MINNEAPOLIS – Two are former Minnesota Mr. Hockey winners, the third might have been able to take home the same trophy if it weren’t for an injury.
All three players were selected in the top three rounds of the NHL draft and were among the top high school recruits in the country their senior seasons.
Each of them could have ended up in various parts of the country, but Zach Budish, Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau ended up together with the Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team. When Minnesota started practicing this season, coach Don Lucia decided the trio best fit on the same line.
Now that they are together, the Budish, Bjugstad and Rau aren’t thinking about being split up — at least not yet.
“We just want to focus on this, what we have at hand,” said Rau, the freshman left wing. “If things go well here, other things will play out for us.”
Together, the three have formed one of the top lines in all of college hockey and helped the Gophers return to prominence as the No. 2 ranked team in the country heading into this weekend’s series at No. 14 Denver. Minnesota (19-9-1, 15-5-0 WCHA) also leads the conference with 30 points.
Surely Budish, Bjugstad and Rau aren’t the only Gophers with professional aspirations. They are just three of the 17 current Minnesota players whose rights are owned by NHL clubs. Signing top recruits is nothing new for Minnesota, but when Lucia assembled Budish, Bjugstad and Rau on the same line in, it put three of the state’s top recruits the past few seasons together.
And they haven’t disappointed.
Rau is the speedy newcomer, slight in stature at just 5-foot-8 and 172 pounds, but he’s made his mark with 13 goals and 14 assists in his first 27 college games. Rau’s plus-19 rating is sixth in the country. Bjugstad is the big sophomore center with the bigger numbers. The 6-foot-5, 211-pounder is second in the nation with 21 goals to go with 12 assists. Budish, the redshirt sophomore right wing, is the surprise veteran leader as an assistant captain with six goals and 16 assists.
“It’s fun playing with guys as skilled as they are,” said Budish, who suffered a knee injury playing football and missed the entire his entire senior hockey season at Edina High School.
“They are good defensively and they play an all-around game. Obviously they put up a lot of points. That’s what most people notice. We do things that don’t show up. Kyle blocks a bunch of shots. Nick’s phenomenal on faceoffs…I think those guys bring other things to the table other than scoring.”
Budish has quickly become the “older” guys in the locker room. While the Gophers are used to getting its share of the top players, it’s also meant an early exit to the pros recently. Budish, a second-round pick by the Nashville Predators in the 2009 draft, has enjoyed assuming a leadership role and wants to be part of the group that leads Minnesota back into the national tournament.
“At the beginning of the year, we talked about how this would be the first senior class that’s gone through and not played in an NCAA tournament,” Budish said. “As an upperclassman, frankly, that’s embarrassing.”
Returning the team they grew up watching to the national spotlight is something Budish, Bjugstad and Rau each take pride in and the instant chemistry they developed has helped the Gophers become one of the top teams in the country. With the trio leading the way, Minnesota owns the second-best offense in the country, averaging 3.72 goals per game. For Lucia dealing with all of the talent was like solving a puzzle.
“I thought the transition for Kyle playing left wing, as opposed to center coming straight out of high school, was better for him, so he was a natural to play with (Bjugstad),” Lucia said. “It was fitting the other pieces together on the one guy on a line. I think we’ve moved some people around trying to find the right matchups there. But it’s hard sometimes to find two guys that fit on one line, let alone three.”
Bjugstad, who was the 19th overall pick in the 2010 draft by the Florida Panthers from Blaine, was the first to think of the possibilities of playing with his current linemates. He had already committed to Lucia and the Gophers when he was playing with Rau on a select team in Europe.
“I made sure I gave him a hard time about coming here,” Bjugstad said. “I knew his brother went to (Colorado College) so maybe that was an option. I was all over him and thankfully he chose here.”
Meanwhile, Bjugstad and Rau might have the chance to stay together when they make the jump to the professional level. Rau, an Eden Prairie native, slipped to the third round of the 2011 draft because of his size but was also drafted by Florida, which had taken Bjugstad in the first round a year earlier.
“We don’t really like to talk about that,” Bjugstad said of the professional opportunities awaiting each of them. “We’d probably get chirped by some of the guys in the locker room. We don’t really talk about it much, but you think about it a little bit.”
While has a professional future, Lucia doesn’t want to think about any of his top line leaving for the next level.
“I don’t even want to go there,” Lucia said. “I don’t want to talk about those things.”
Thankfully for Lucia, neither do Budish, Bjugstad or Rau, yet.