Bjugstad bolsters U hockey prospects

The Gophers' top goal-scorer from last season will delay his shot at the NHL to return to school for his junior season.

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Minnesota's Nick Bjugstad (27)

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Expectations for the Gophers men's hockey team were already high for the 2012-13 season. On Thursday, those hopes grew.

Nick Bjugstad, after a 98-day wait following the Gophers' crushing loss to Boston College in the NCAA semifinals, told coach Don Lucia that he would be coming back for his junior season.

He had the option of signing with the Florida Panthers, who took him in the first round of the 2010 NHL draft. He decided to wait before starting his pro career.

"It's great for our program," Lucia said. "We were very patient. I only met with him two different times, a month after the season was over and a couple weeks ago before he went to Florida for their development camp."

Bjugstad led the Gophers with 25 goals last season and was third in scoring with 42 points. He centered the first line. With him, the Gophers have six of their top seven scorers back and should be favored to repeat as WCHA regular-season champions. Their top six defensemen return, too. One preseason national poll already had the Gophers ranked No. 1 -- assuming Bjugstad was back in the lineup.

"We want high expectations," Lucia said. "That is exciting for our fans. But we still have to perform on the ice."

Lucia expects Bjugstad, who turns 20 on Tuesday, will keep getting better: "He improved a great deal last season, and there is no reason he can't continue to mature," Lucia said.

For sure, Bjugstad is still growing. At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he is about one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than last season, when he was an all-WCHA first-team pick.

Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon told the Miami Herald that Bjugstad would have competed for a roster spot if he had signed, but he was fine with Bjugstad's decision.

A possible NHL lockout worried Bjugstad. He also wondered where he could develop more, in the American Hockey League if he didn't make the Panthers roster or as a leader on a talented Gophers team.

The chance to compete for a national title and obtain his college degree were other reasons he stayed in school.

A media member in Florida last week asked Bjugstad if he wanted to win a Stanley Cup or an NCAA championship. He said both. The loss to BC is still on his mind.

"I'd like to finish well," Bjugstad said. "I never won a state championship in high school and never won a college championship. ... We will have a good chance this season."

While winning titles is never a certainty, Bjugstad will have enough credits for his college degree -- or be close -- by next spring. He finished high school at Blaine in three years and, by taking summer classes, is on the same accelerated academic pace at the U.

"He has done everything we want in the classroom, the weight room and on the ice," Lucia said. "He enjoys being a college student, playing with his friends. We're looking forward to having this group together."

The Gophers open their season against Michigan State on Oct. 12 at Mariucci Arena.

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