As the 19th pick in the 2010 NHL draft — and as a guy who stands 6-8 in skates — Nick Bjugstad usually attracts the most attention of anyone on the Gophers’ top line. In one way, though, the junior center feels like the odd man out.
Left wing Kyle Rau won two Class 2A championships at Eden Prairie. Right wing Christian Isackson won a Class 1A title at St. Thomas Academy. And Bjugstad? He made it to the state tournament three times with Blaine but never hoisted a trophy.
That unfulfilled desire led Bjugstad back to the Gophers this season. As the end nears, he has shifted into high gear, just in time for the Gophers’ first-round WCHA playoff series against Bemidji State starting Friday. Bjugstad scored three goals last weekend as the Gophers swept the Beavers for a share of the conference regular-season title. During the Gophers’ current three-game winning streak, he has netted the winning goal in each game and has four goals and an assist.
Coach Don Lucia has repeated one of his favorite themes over the past two weeks, saying the Gophers’ top-end players must shine if they are to challenge for a WCHA playoff championship and an NCAA title. Bjugstad said he doesn’t need to be reminded, given the empty space in his résumé.
“I never won a big championship growing up, and I really hope we can do it this year,’’ said Bjugstad, whose 20 goals lead the Gophers and rank sixth in the nation. “The big stage is fun. I really like it. It’s a tough thing to win a championship, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.’’
This could be his final chance. A first-team all-WCHA selection and second-team all-America last year, Bjugstad seriously considered turning pro over the summer. But he came back to be part of a close, talented group of teammates and see what they might achieve.
The Gophers’ third-leading scorer with 35 points, Bjugstad also is among the national leaders with 10 power-play goals (tied for third) and five game-winning goals (tied for seventh). He is a key contributor to the nation’s best power play and highest-scoring offense, and Lucia likes how his game has grown beyond scoring.
As a first-round draft pick of the Florida Panthers, Bjugstad is judged by most people strictly on how many pucks he puts into the net, Lucia said. He is slightly behind his scoring pace of last season, when he finished with 25 goals in 40 games, but he has more game-winners and power-play goals. He also is developing as a sound defensive player, a physical presence at both ends of the ice and a workhorse on the penalty kill.
“Sometimes, the expectation is that he’s going to score 40 goals,’’ Lucia said. “No, he’s not. It’s too hard to do that the way college hockey is today. I think he’s got a little presence to him now. Nick is effective in a lot of areas of the rink, not just scoring. He’s had a good year, no question. And when you get to this time of year, our top offensive players have to carry us.’’
Lucia said several of them have had more productive second halves. Bjugstad, for instance. He has 22 of his 35 points, and 12 of his 20 goals, in the 19 games since Christmas break.
As he has gained experience and maturity, Bjugstad said, he feels ready to shoulder greater expectations in the late stages this season. Last year’s run to the Frozen Four, when the Gophers lost in the semifinals, taught him not to overthink things. Over the past few games, he said he has not changed his mindset or approach. Rather, his line is clicking because everyone is staying on task, which has allowed him to score more.
He won’t ever equal the high school achievements of his linemates who won state championships, but they can think of nothing better than winning a title together. “It would be really special for all of us, but especially for Nick,’’ Isackson said.
“He’s worked so hard. He deserves it.’’