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Big decision awaits Florida Panthers top pick Nick Bjugstad

Nick Bjugstad has a decision to make. He promises not to make anyone wait too long.

Bjugstad, a first-round draft pick by the Panthers, can return to the University of Minnesota for his junior year or turn pro and battle for an NHL roster spot in Florida.

“It’s going to be a tough one,” Bjugstad said after the second day of the Panthers’ prospect camp Tuesday. “There are pros and cons to both sides. I should probably just write them down on a sheet of paper and add everything up.”

The Panthers say they won’t try and sway Bjugstad either way.

“It’s up to him,” general manager Dale Tallon said. “Whatever he decides to do. If he wants to turn pro and fight for a roster spot, we’ll go forward. If he wants to go back to school then we’ll let him do that. We never tell kids to play in junior or to leave school. Let the kids do what they want to do. They’ll tell you when they are ready.”

It does seem apparent that Florida would like to see the 6-6 center in training camp, however, something that won’t happen if he returns to play for the Gophers in the fall.

“He had a great year, but he’s disappointed they didn’t win a national championship,” Tallon said. “He’s 6-6, 220 right now so he’ll play at 6-6, 240 — maybe more. Guys like that are hard to find. We looking for offense and top centermen, and there aren’t many around. The ones that are, are expensive. We’re excited about his future.”

On one hand, Bjugstad would like to help Minnesota return to the Frozen Four and try to help the school win its eighth national title. “We have a lot of good players coming in and a lot returning,” he said. Bjugstad is also on track to get his degree in business marketing education next year.

Bjugstad helped lead the Gophers to Tampa last season, scoring 25 goals with 17 assists in 40 games. The Gophers lost in the semifinals to Boston College 6-1, a defeat that left a bad taste.

In Florida, Bjugstad has a chance to play in the NHL as early as October. Tallon and coach Kevin Dineen have said two or three of Florida’s young players could be on the roster to start the season.

Bjugstad, with his size and skill, would be a strong candidate to be one of those. “He doesn’t look like he’s missed many meals,” Dineen joked.

Said Kyle Rau, Bjugstad’s teammate at Minnesota and fellow Florida prospect who had one more point than Bjugstad last season: “I wish I knew what he was going to do, but I don’t. Obviously I want him to stay where I’m at, but I want the best for him. I haven’t mentioned it. He has to make this decision. It’s obviously his dream to play in the NHL — it’s all of our dream.”

Bjugstad has been a player Florida has been high on since it drafted him 19th overall in Los Angeles. Bjugstad was Minnesota’s prep Mr. Hockey during his senior year after he took accelerated courses and graduated high school in three years instead of four.

As a highly touted freshman at Minnesota, Bjugstad struggled early as he had mononucleosis and played a lot on the wing. The Gophers didn’t have much of a season that year, adding to Bjugstad’s disappointment. He ended that year with eight goals and 17 points in 29 games as Minnesota finished 16-14-6 with a losing record at home.

But last year was big for Bjugstad and Minnesota as both bounced back. Bjugstad was strong from the start, centering a line that included Rau — drafted by Florida in 2011 after he, too, won Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey award — and helped Minnesota to a 28-14-1 record and a berth in the Frozen Four.

As much as Bjugstad wants to return to Minneapolis and help Minnesota make a run to this year’s finals in Pittsburgh, playing professionally is a huge temptation. Bjugstad said he is relying on the advice of friends and family — including uncle Scott Bjugstad, who spent eight seasons in the NHL with the North Stars, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

Bjugstad said he will make it in the coming days — most likely before leaving South Florida.

“It won’t be that long,” Bjugstad said.

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