Gophers center Nick Bjugstad is bigger and undoubtedly stronger that he was a year ago at this time.

Florida Panthers GM Dale Talon said last week that Bjugstad is 6-6, 220 and will play at 240 someday. The Panthers picked him in the first round, No. 19 overall, in the 2010 NHL draft.

"It is definitely a relief that I've come to my decision," Bjugstad said.  "I am very confident about it and I am kind of relaxed now."

He made the right decision to not turn pro.

Bjugstad had a breakout year for the Gophers last season, so Panthers fans could argue he should turn pro.

Gophers fans, though, can just as easily say he needs to add muscle, get tougher. Now he will have that chance in college on one of the best teams in the nation -- on paper, at least.

"I will have more of a leadership role this season," Bjugstad said, "and have a chance to  play with guys I did last year. It would have been tough leave great group guys. And we have a  lot of good guys coming in."

The Gophers have not named their captain and assistant captains yet for this coming season. It would not be surprising if Bjugey got to wear one of those letters.

His two linemates are coming back, too, left wing Kyle Rau and right wing Zach Budish. If Don Lucia keeps those three together, they could be one of the top lines in college hockey.

Last season was actually a tale of two halves for Bjugstad. In the Gophers' first 20 games, Bjugstad had 16 goals and 11 assists for 27 points.

In the last 20 games he played, those numbers dropped to nine goals and six assists for 15 points -- say in half for simplicity's sake. Bjugstad got hurt in December and again in late February. He was not the same player the second half.

The Gophers played only 43 games. NHL teams play almost twice as many -- in the regular-season -- and then start playoffs.

As a freshman, Bjugstad's season went pretty much the exact opposite. He got off to a slow start, partly because of a bout with mononucleosis. He played in 29 games but had only four points in his first 13 games until averaging a point per game in his lat 16 games. He finished with eight goals and 12 assists for 20 points.

Bjugstad, who turns 20 on Tuesday of next week, has not had a complete college season yet. So it was not time for him to turn pro.

Throughout his sophomore season, he said he would make a decision after the season was over. It ended three months ago. Panthers' prospects' camp ended Friday. He clearly struggled with his decision.

Bottom line is, he had two good choices:

A) He could return to the Gophers, maybe lead them to an NCAA title. Maybe be a candidate for the Hobey Baker, earn all-america honors, graduate in three years. ... Most college players would ask, where do I sign up for that?

of B) He can sign a rookie NHL contract for $900,000, the first-year maximum, if he makes the Panthers' roster. Playing in the NHL is his dream. It's right there.

He is a lucky fellow to have those two choices.

Here are Bjugstad's 2011-12 statistics month by month:

                          G     A     Pts.      Games  

October            6     6      12        eight

Comments : Had five games with at least two points.

                         G     A     Pts.      Games  

November      9      4      13        eight       

Comments: Had at least one goal in six games. Named national player of the month. ... Best month of the season. .. He scored the game-winning goals against North Dakota on Nov. 4 and St. Cloud State on Nov. 19.

                         G     A     Pts.      Games  

December      1     1      2          four      

Comments: Missed two games because he played for U.S. in World Junior Championships. Suffered an upper body injury in last college game of the month.

                        G     A     Pts.      Games  

January         5     1      6           seven      

Comments: Had more than one point in a game only once. ... He scored the game-winning goal against St. Cloud State on Jan. 27.

                       G     A     Pts.      Games  

February       2     3      5           six      

Comments: Pointless for four Saturdays in a row from Jan 21 to Feb. 18.

                       G     A     Pts.      Games  

March            2     2      4           seven      

Comments: Missed first game of month after being injured in last game of Feb. against Nebraska Omaha. Big Mavs player crushed him against the boards.

                       G     A     Pts.      Games  

April               0      0      0          one      

Comments: In Gophers' only game, they lost 6-1 to Boston College in national semifinals in Tampa. Bjugstad was a minus-2. He had zero points and two shots on goal.

Maybe this season will end differently for him and the Gophers.