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Minnesota Gopher Hockey: Bjugstad, Budish and Schmidt Turn Pro

The three juniors, C Nick Bjugstad, W Zach Budish, and D Nate Schmidt have all signed with an NHL club in the last two days, and fellow junior Erik Haula is expected to sign with the Wild. That should be it for players leaving early, but we'll see.

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And just like that, arguably your best player, your captain and your best defenseman are gone. And your leading scorer the past few seasons is very likely next. This was expected, but it still hits home of how much Gopher Hockey will need to replace for next season, and what an opportunity they missed this year. Bjugstad, a former first rounder, signed with the Florida Panthers, Budish with the Nashville Predators who took him as a second rounder four years ago, and Schmidt signed as a free agent with Washington. Schmidt was one of the few Gophers on the roster who wasn't drafted, but after a breakout sophomore season a year ago and leading all college defensemen in scoring this year, there were plenty of suitors for his services. A huge thank you to all three guys who were major contributors to Minnesota's success the past three seasons. Best of luck with your professional futures, and they will most definitely be missed next year.

No word yet on whether any of the three will jump straight to the big club or be sent to the AHL, as there's less than 15 games to go in the regular season. I would think Budish is almost guaranteed to go the AHL with the hopes of cracking the roster somewhere down the road. It shouldn't take Schmidt long to wear a Caps sweater, as least as a test run to see how he does. Bjugstad is practically a lock to start next season with Florida and its young nucleus, but we'll see if his NHL debut happens this season or next.

***UPDATE***Chris Peters of United States of Hockey just tweeted that Panthers GM Stan Bowman said Bjugstad will be in Florida's lineup Saturday. Soooooo that didn't take long.

Haula, the team's leading scorer the past two seasons, was considered almost as much a lock to leave as Bjuggy and Schmidt, yet the Strib's Mike Russo tweeted early that nothing is imminent with Haula and the Wild. An NHL team can draft a player at 18 then hold his draft rights for four years. If a player does not sign after the fourth year, he can become a free agent. Haula's draft rights would expire this summer, which is why it would seem very likely he'll be a part of Minnesota's AHL club down in Houston any day now.

That could be the end of the early defectors, or there could be a surprise name or two yet to go. Losing three key juniors and probably a fourth is going to be a real loss of leadership for what looks to be a pretty young Gopher team next season. Here's hoping another junior, Nate Condon, decides to stick around for his senior season and be The Man instead of turning pro with Colorado, as Condon had a breakout season bouncing between the first, second and third lines. There's plenty of talent returning up front and more help on the way in recruiting, but that's still a big loss if/when Haula leaves as it would mean three of their top four scorers are out the door. Defensively the Gophers only stand to lose Schmidt and senior Seth Helgeson, and barring any surprise announcements (I'm looking at you, Mark Alt) they should be very stable on defense with Mike Reilly stepping into Schmidt's #1 power play role, and seniors Jake Parenteau and Justin Holl shifting back to defense after a season on the wing. Obviously Minnesota is set in goal with freshman sensation Adam Wilcox back for his sophomore season.

The Gophers will reload next season and are primed for a run at a conference title in their first season in the B1G, but losing three, and likely four, of their best players won't be easy.