The news every Gopher fan has been waiting for finally became official today: per the Gopher athletic website (with a sticktap to the immortal Puck Daddy blog), center Nick Bjugstad will return for his junior year. The second team All-American was debating whether to turn pro with the Florida Panthers, who made him the 15th overall selection back in the 2010 NHL Draft, or return to the U for another Frozen Four run. There were zero guarantees he would have made the Panthers NHL roster this fall, and most likely would have spent the season in the AHL. Sure, playing against fellow pros is good experience, but instead he gets to return to school to play with his teammates and buddies, and make another run at a national title.
As a possibly very biased Gopher hockey fan I'll say he made the wise, astute, and correct choice. With him returning the Gophers are a lock to be a pre-season top 5 team in the country, perhaps top 2 or 3, and I would say have an argument to be pre-season #1 over Boston College. With Bjugy back, who led the team in goals with 25 and was third in points with 42, Minnesota returns five of their top six scorers, their entire defensive corps, and adds some high-quality and potentiall high-impact recruits. Goalie? Ok so we need to get the goalie situation figured out, but I like the chances of that happening with an uber-talented AND experienced team playing in from of whoever wins the battle for the #1 goalie job (my money's on incoming freshman Adam Wilcox but we'll see what happens).
The top line now returns intact, as Bjugstad will once again center last year's second-leading scorer and Freshman All-American Kyle Rau, and power forward Zach Budish, who was sixth on the team in scoring with 35 points a year ago. Leading scorer Eric Haula is back to center the second line, which will most likely include Nate Condon and...well there's potentially five or six guys who could fill that second line wing spot.
Update: Forgot to mention this, but this announcement also should mean that 2012 Minnesota Mr Hockey winner Justin Kloos will be heading off to play juniors this fall instead of to Dinkytown. A natural center, Kloos would have been fighting for the 3rd line center spot at best with the Gophers this season, and instead will get a ton of ice time and opportunity in juniors. We look forward to seeing him in Maroon and Gold for the 2013-14 season.
No matter, the point is, the Gophers are loaded, and Bjugstad will be a Hobey Baker candidate as the national player of the year and is a good bet to wear the "C" next season too. The U will begin the year in their final season in the WCHA as prohibitive favorites to win the conference, and return to the Frozen Four.
Glad you're back, Nick. Can't wait for the season to start.