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Headed home: Wild acquire former Gopher Nick Bjugstad from Penguins

Nick Bjugstad has played in more than 70 games only three times in eight NHL seasons split between the Florida Panthers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Wild general manager Bill Guerin is gambling that will change with Bjugstad back home in Minnesota.

Guerin took that low-risk gamble on Friday evening acquiring the Minneapolis native and former Gophers from the Penguins for a conditional selection in the 2021 NHL draft. The conditions are that if Bjugstad plays in 70 games or scores 35 points, the Penguins will get a 2021 seventh-round pick, according to Sarah McLellan of the Star Tribune.

Guerin has been looking for a top-line center and also depth at the position and the 6-foot-6, 215-pound Bjugstad provides the latter. He also can be used on the wing and gives the Wild another much-needed right-shot forward. Bjugstad, who played in only 13 games for the Penguins in 2019-20, has 97 goals and 110 assists in 439 career games. He has scored 17 power-play goals.

“His versatility is something that I like,” Guerin said. “He’s big, he’s skilled, he can make plays and score. I think a healthy, motivated Nick Bjugstad is a very good player, and I’m anxious to see him get going. I’m confident that he’ll do fine.”

Bjugstad’s recent injury history is concerning. Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford announced in May that Bjugstad had undergone spinal surgery on a herniated disc. His recovery time was put at eight weeks. Bjugstad, 28, also had missed time last winter as he recovered from a core-muscle injury and surgery in November. He returned for about a week before being injured again.

Bjugstad was a star at Blaine High School, leading the program to three consecutive appearances in the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament, and was named Mr. Hockey in Minnesota for the 2009-10 season. He was drafted 19th overall in the first round by the Florida Panthers in 2010.

Bjugstad, whose uncle Scott played for the Gophers and the Minnesota North Stars, also attended the University of Minnesota and had 54 goals and 44 assists in 109 games and three seasons with the Gophers. Minnesota advanced to the Frozen Four in Bjugstad’s second season. He left the university after his junior season to sign with the Panthers.

Bjugstad led Florida with 38 points and was third on the team in goals with 16 in 76 games in 2013-14, his first full season with the team. He was rewarded with a six-year, $24.6 million contract extension by the Panthers in December 2014. Bjugstad’s injury issues really began in 2016-17 when he suffered a broken hand and had a lower body injury. He played in only 54 games and had seven goals and seven assists.

The following season, Bjugstad played in all 82 games for the only time in his career and finished with 19 goals and 30 assists. His assist total and 49 points are career highs. He was traded to the Penguins on Feb. 1, 2019, along with Jared McCann for two players (Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan) and three draft picks. The Penguins went into training camp this past season hoping Bjugstad could grab the job as their No. 3 center but injuries stopped that from happening. Bjugstad played in only 45 games in his time with the Penguins and had 10 goals and 16 points.

Guerin knows all about Bjugstad’s game, having been the Penguins’ assistant general manager when Pittsburgh traded for him. Bjugstad will be entering the final season of his contract in 2020-21. He is due to make $5.25 million and will count $4.1 million against the salary cap. The Penguins, however, will retain half of Bjugstad’s salary, according to the Star Tribune.

“I’ve always liked Nick as a player,” Guerin said. “Getting to know him for a little bit at the World Championships one year and then in Pittsburgh, he’s a terrific guy. So there was interest. It was just something I didn’t want to jump on right away. But when Jim and I spoke yesterday, it seemed like the right move. Nick definitely has something to prove. He’s motivated, he’s in the last year of his deal. Bringing a guy home, there is some risk involved in that, but I’m confident that Nick is going to be a professional. This is not a homecoming for him by any stretch. He’s coming here to play for the Minnesota Wild and to help us win. That’s what I expect and that’s what I’m going to get.”





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