Minnesota Gopher Hockey: Will Nick Bjugstad Turn Pro with the Florida Panthers?

So is this the week? Roman told us back in April that Gopher sophomore center Nick Bjugstad would make his decision to turn pro in mid May after the semester was finished:

A source close to Bjugstad said he remains undecided on what he will do, leaning one way one day, the other way the next day, so he is giving himself more time to be sure.

The Florida Panthers, who took him in the first round of the 2010 NHL draft, have told him the decision is his. He could have already signed with them and been playing for the Panther's AHL affiliate, San Antonio...

...It seems like it is 50-50 whether Bjugstad will return or sign with the Panthers. I thought it was 60-40 that he would stay from talking to him and those close to him during the season, but now I think the odds are not that good of him coming back.

Well the semester is finished, and it's now late May, but nothing yet from Bjugstad, the U, or the Panthers. I don't believe there's any real deadline approaching, as rookie camp won't be until August, yet you would think all parties involved would want to know how they're moving forward, right?

I have no idea what Nick is thinking, but as a Gopher fan I hope he comes back and leads them on a national title run in their last season in the WCHA. With Bjugstad they likely start the year no worse than the preseason #2 or #3- not in the WCHA, in the country. BC lost some key pieces (have you see what Chris Kreider is doing with the Rangers?) but because they were SO dominant last year they likely start the season at #1, but after that Minnesota with Bjugy has as good an argument as anybody for being #2.

Losing goalie Kent Patterson obviously hurts, as he was not only otherworldly in his two seasons in which he started every game, but their goaltending without him is entirely unproven and could go to a freshman (hello Adam Wilcox!). However, when you not only return your ENTIRE defense, but also add a couple of really good recruits that could jump into your top 4 right away, well, it softens the blow. And while the leadership of departing captain Taylor Mattson and wingers Jake Hansen and Nick Larson will be missed, if Bjugstad returns that means so does six of their top seven scoring forwards from last year. Basically their top two lines would return pretty much intact, and then you'd be adding more skilled freshman to the group (including, to Don Lucia's credit, the kind of "freshman" they need to add. Like, say, a 20 year old named Connor Reilly who has destroyed a very good junior league up in BC last season? That'll help. Oh and not to worry all of you who insist on an all-Minnesota roster- he's from Minnesota)

So Bjugstad would be returning to an absolutely loaded squad. Obviously he knows this, knows he'd be a pre-season favorite for the Hobey Baker, and I would imagine the leading candidate to take the "C" from Mattson (while the player named captain is often a senior, keep in mind the Gophs will have a whopping one senior next year, defensemen Seth Helgeson. And no offense to Helgeson, but he'll be lucky to play in the team's top 2 pairings). Again, I have no idea what he's thinking or feeling, yet you have to believe an unexpected run to the Frozen Four bonded him with his teammates and with just about everybody coming back, you know they've been talking about getting revenge on BC and finishing the job. And that has to matter to a kid who's not only as competitive as Bjugy, but someone who seems to love the school and his teammates as much as he does.

The fact he's waited this long to make up his mind makes me believe- makes me WANT to believe- that he's staying. After all, the kids who leave school early, like Denver's Jason Zucker or Drew Shore or the aforementioned BC's Kreider, leave immediately following the season. Like, I'm not sure Zucker and Shore even had their skates off yet after their season-ending loss to Ferris State before they were signing their pro contracts. And yet here's Bjugstad two weeks after school's out still trying to make up his mind?

Seems like a no-brainer then right? If you're a Gopher fan sure. If you're not, well...

...in that case, the no-brainer would be turning pro. Gopher puck fans may not want to hear this, but at this point, Bjugstad has little-to-nothing left to prove at the collegiate level. Before the season, the 15th overall pick in the 2010 draft he was highly-regarded with a lot of potential, but wasn't making anybody's top 50 prospects list. The big knock on him before last season was his skating. Now at 6'4 with the hands and hockey IQ he possesses, nobody's expecting him to be Pavel Bure out there, but his skating needed to improve. And that's what he did last offseason. The result was an explosive first step and an ability to better gain separation and speed on his first couple of strides. That, with the combination of off-season conditioning and a year of maturity, led to the explosion we saw as a sophomore. The same guy who started the season off the scout's prospects list was all over them by season's end: Hockey's Future, as good a site as any for hockey prospects, currently has him ranked 33rd with a glowing review:

The 2011-12 season will likely be seen as the year in which Nick Bjugstad truly came of age as a hockey player. Already highly touted and respected as a prospect, the former Mr. Hockey lifted his game to another level. Bjugstad hit the ice with a quicker step, additional power in his long stride, and even more strength along the boards...Simply stated, Bjugstad is a commanding presence whenever he is on the ice.

Sure, returning to Minnesota for another season certainly wouldn't hurt his pro potential, but there's no way it helps as much as playing against pros either in the AHL, or perhaps even given a shot with the big club this fall. Last season at Minnesota showed he's ready for the next step if he's willing to take it.

But that's the thing- it's only if he wants to take it. Per that Roman article, sounds like Florida is going to leave it up to him, which is great considering how some past Gopher prospects have been handled by their parent clubs. It seemed guys like Kyle Okposo, Jordan Schroeder and Nick Leddy were pulled form the U like they were being saved from a burning building, yet the Panthers are showing no such concerns. Hopefully that's a sign that whatever perceived issues NHL clubs had with Lucia's player development at the time aren't there any longer (which was ridiculous to begin with when you look at how many guys he recruited and coached at the U are playing in the NHL and playing well), and that not just Bjugstad but the many other current and future Gopher draft picks will get plenty of development time in Maroon and Gold.

But this hands-off Florida philosophy also speaks to their situation, which is simply that right now they can afford to wait. They just made the playoffs for the first time since last century, and they have the undisputed #1 farm system in hockey, one this is so ridiculously loaded that Bjugstad is only their third best prospect, and second best center. No really. The Panthers are likely to have six of their top seven prospects (not including Bjugstad obviously) in training camp this fall, and at least three of them are likely to make the team: center Jonathan Huberdeau, who has scored in the neighborhood of 9 million points in junior with the QMJHL power Saint John Seadogs (a team that includes Wild prospects Charlie Coyle and Zach Phillips), the world's top goalie prospect Jacob Markstrom, and one of forward Quinton Howden, who's considered the faster skater not playing in the NHL right now, or defensemen Colby Robak and Alex Petrovic.

While this is an enviable situation to be in having this many incredibly talented young players ready to go, it will also create a salary cap headache in a few years if ALL of these guys' contracts come due at the same time. Because of that, the Panthers are probably just fine if Bjugstad stays at Minnesota for one more season to delay his pro contract clock from starting, and get a bit of separation between he and Huberdeau and Markstrom.

So the decision, whenever he decides to make it, is up to Nick Bjugstad. As a Gopher fan I selfishly hope he comes back to Dinkytown for one more season, but the realist in me would be surprised to see it happen. Here's hoping I'm surprised.

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