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Nick Bjugstad

Nick Bjugstad has 15 goals and 26 points in 18 games with the Golden Gophers this year, just ahead of the WJC. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Nick Bjugstad has 15 goals and 26 points in 18 games with the Golden Gophers this year, just ahead of the WJC. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Even going back to last year’s World Junior Championship, the Florida Panthers and GM Dale Tallon envisioned Nick Bjugstad as the big, powerful center they didn’t have. And while the Cats are flying high in the NHL this year, Bjugstad continues to develop his game at a nice rate as a member of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. He’ll also be an integral part of Team USA again this year when the tournament hits Edmonton and Calgary.

“The exciting part for us is we’ve seen the maturation of this player,” said U.S. GM Jim Johansson. “He’s a little bit stronger and everything he did last year he’s doing at a slightly higher pace.”

Bjugstad was a star with the Blaine Bengals during his Minnesota high school days and a heavily anticipated recruit for the Gophers. A bout with mononucleosis slowed his progress as a freshman, but he was still able to put up four points in six games at the world juniors and 20 points in 29 games for Minnesota. This season, he’s been a monster, tallying 15 goals and 26 points through his first 18 games to lead the team in scoring. Right now, he’s hoping to earn his way back onto that junior squad (though honestly, he’s a lock).

“I want to bring the same thing I did last year,” Bjugstad said. “Two-way play, scoring some goals and playing back on defense.”

After a couple disappointing campaigns, the Golden Gophers are back on top of the WCHA and the play of Bjugstad has been a big part of it, though there has been a surprising freshman in the ranks who has augmented the sophomore’s impact and that’s fellow Florida draft pick Kyle Rau. The small but skilled 2011 third-rounder is third in Minnesota scoring and had many doubters coming in. But his teammate was not one of them.

“I played against Kyle for years growing up and then was lucky enough to play with him at the Ivan Hlinka tournament,” Bjugstad said. “I knew coming in what he could do. He knows where to be on the ice and that trumps anything.”

Rau also made Team USA’s preliminary roster for the world juniors, but it’s tough to say at this point if he’ll make it or not. Several dynamic smaller players are available (T.J. Tynan, John Gaudreau and Austin Czarnik are three others, while Rocco Grimaldi is out due to a knee injury), though there’s no rule that says Johansson and crew have to take just one – or any. Bjugstad, on the other hand, will be front and center on the American attack and he relishes the opportunity to play Canada at least once and maybe twice on its home soil. With the tournament in Buffalo last year, the stands were packed with Canucks and even the semifinal against Team USA featured just as many Canadian fans as their American counterparts.

“It’s fun playing in that environment,” he said. “The Canadian fans are something else.”

Bjugstad chalked last summer’s U.S. orientation camp as a big reason for his naming to the 2011 installment of the team, giving him the confidence to know he could keep up with the older participants. This summer’s edition featured great competition from Sweden and Finland and the 6-foot-4 center was happy to get in those reps once again.

Even though the roster’s not quite set, Team USA will be stacked again this year and with coach Dean Blais back behind the bench after a one-year absence, the gold-medal pedigree is there. Bjugstad likes his team’s odds going into Edmonton and Calgary.

“I think this team has just as much of a chance as the team that won gold two years ago.”

THN.com's Prospect Watch focuses on up-and-comers from the AHL, Europe, major junior, the NCAA and even minor hockey destined to become big names in the NHL.

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