Two more players leave team for pros

Both Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish will forgo their last year of eligibility.

Minnesota forward Nick Bjugstad keeps the puck from Wisconsin forward Nic Kerdiles on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Ichigo Takikawa, Daily File Photo

Minnesota forward Nick Bjugstad keeps the puck from Wisconsin forward Nic Kerdiles on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Drew Claussen

The Gophers lost their top defenseman Tuesday to the National Hockey League. On Wednesday, two of their top forwards also left to play professionally.

Nick Bjugstad signed Wednesday with the Florida Panthers, the team that drafted him in the first round in 2010.

Zach Budish also left the Gophers on Wednesday, signing an amateur tryout deal with the Milwaukee Admirals.

Bjugstad and Budish are the second and third Gophers players after Nate Schmidt to forgo their senior season and head to the professional ranks.

The losses mean the Gophers will have an inexperienced roster next season, although they’ll likely remain a top team thanks to a strong recruiting class.

“I just kind of thought about it and figured it’s probably the best for my future,” Bjugstad told the Minnesota Daily minutes after the Panthers announced his contract on Twitter. “It’s tough to leave here — this is a great place to play. I loved all three years.”

Bjugstad said the decision was hard to explain because of its complexity.

Head coach Don Lucia said in a Gophers release that Bjugstad, who led the team in goals the past two seasons, was ready for the next step.

“He has grown a lot in his three seasons with the program,” Lucia said in the release, “and he clearly has a bright future ahead of him.”

Bjugstad was named a second team All-American and made the All-WCHA First Team in 2011-12. He made the All-WCHA Third Team this season.

Bjugstad racked up 98 points (54 goals, 44 assists) in his Gophers career. He averaged more than a point per game during his sophomore season and had 11 power-play goals this season, which ranked third in the nation.

Many of those power-play goals were set up by either Schmidt or junior Erik Haula. Schmidt signed with the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, and Haula may sign a professional contract soon.

Bjugstad said the possibility of multiple players leaving didn’t have much influence in his decision.

“Those guys obviously were a big part of our team,” Bjugstad said. “It’s kind of an individual decision, what’s best for you.

“It’s hard to see those guys go, too,” he added. “I had a great year with all those guys, and I can’t say enough about them either. I’m sure they have a great future ahead of them.”

Budish said after last Friday’s season-ending loss to Yale that he would be back with the Gophers next season. Some time during the next five days, he had a change of heart.

Budish’s new team, the Milwaukee Admirals, are the American Hockey League affiliate of the Nashville Predators, who drafted Budish in 2009.

Budish’s name was on the Admirals’ roster Wednesday afternoon.

Budish was supposed to be a senior on this year’s team, but he received a medical redshirt for his 2010-11 season, which was cut short due to a knee injury from a moped accident. He also missed his senior season at Edina High School because of a knee injury.

“Zach has had to overcome two major knee surgeries in the last five years to become one of the best power forwards in college hockey,” Lucia said in a release. “He played a pivotal role on our top two lines and was a great leader on and off the ice.”

Lucia also said in the release that Budish will graduate this spring.

Budish scored the game-tying goal in the Gophers’ NCAA tournament game against Yale last Friday. Minnesota fell to the Bulldogs nine seconds into overtime.

Budish had 35 goals and 59 assists in four seasons with Minnesota. He was the team’s captain this season.