Bjugstad Joins Schmidt, Budish In Departing Gophers For NHL

Updated: 04/05/2013 11:41 AM KSTP.com By: Chris Long

Click the video box on this page to see clips from 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS' interview with Nick Bjugstad as he stopped by Mariucci Arena for one last skate, and to pick up his gear before leaving to join the NHL's Florida Panthers.

In two days the Gophers lost their captain, best defenseman - and now - their top goal scorer.

Nick Bjugstad signed a pro contract with the Florida Panthers Wednesday afternoon.

His signing follows those of defenseman Nate Schmidt (w/ Washington on Tuesday) and forward Zach Budish (Nashville, Wednesday morning).

All three players just completed their junior seasons.

Bjugstad's 21 goals led the team.

Bjugstad and Budish were drafted by the teams they will make their NHL debut with.  Schmidt, undrafted, signed with Washington as a free agent.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS caught up with Bjugstad as he made one last trip to Mariucci Arena to pick up his equipment, and skate one last time with some of his Gophers teammates.

"It's little bittersweet," Bjugstad says, "I had a great three years here and love everything about the University.  I can't say enough about the players and coaches."

Bjugstad is forgoing his senior year with the Gophers, but some weren't sure he'd be back after last season for a junior year.

"After last year, I didn't know what I'd do," Bjugstad says. "I could have come back for another year, but thought about it and what's best for my future.  The coaches were supportive, which was great. I waited a couple days after the loss against Yale, it was really tough, but I gotta move on it."

In a bit of irony - Bjugstad, Budish and Schmidt are all roommates.  Erik Haula also resides in the same apartment, and is the next Gopher who could potentially depart in the next couple days.  The four departures would leave Kyle Rau all alone in the on-campus apartment which bustled with five inhabitants as recently as Monday.

Schmidt spoke with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS by phone as he walked through the Minneapolis-St Paul airport on his way to catch a flight to D.C.

"It's really tough to leave," Schmidt says. "The opportunity was just so good I couldn't pass it up."

Budish's deal with the Predators is an amateur tryout deal, which will send him to the team's minor league (AHL) affiliate in Milwaukee.

"It has been an honor and a privilege to play for the University of Minnesota, and I am very thankful for the opportunity to live out my dream of being a Gopher," Budish is quoted as saying in a release from the Gopher Athletics. "I'd like to thank the Minnesota staff, my teammates and our fans for their support over the last four years."

The departures signals the end of an era for the Gophers program.

"We all came up together freshman year," Bjugstad says. "We do have a lot of guys - great players - leaving right now.  It's been kind of hectic with everybody trying to figure things out.  But it will be helpful to have guys going through the same stuff at the same time.  it's great to have friends like this going through the same process."

Schmidt and Bjugstad may not need to wait long to see one another.  Washington is at Florida on Saturday - where both may make their NHL debut.

While the departures strip the Gophers of most of their top talent, Bjugstad isn't worried about the state-of-the-program.

"I'm sure the Gophers will be successful next year and years after that."