Hello once again Panther fans and Litter Box Cats readers. With the first half of the season over and everyone (hopefully) getting a chance to watch both Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau play for Team USA during the World Juniors, I figure it's time to give a quick update on their play at the University of Minnesota. If you don't know, I write about the team as the assistant editor over at SB Nation Minnesota and have gotten the chance to see and talk to both.
In addition, there are some observations about Rocco Grimaldi and Corban Knight from their game against the Gophers a couple months ago at the end of this.
It goes without saying but Nick Bjugstad is one of the best players in college hockey this season. He's tied for second in the nation with 16 goals, has 27 points in 20 games (scoring one point in 15 of those games) and is the catalyst for Minnesota's 15-6-1 start. The highlight of the season for him was scoring a hat trick against St. Cloud State as part of a five-point weekend. It wouldn't surprise me to see Bjugstad wearing the Florida uniform next season because he has the vision, size and mindset to be playing in the NHL.
The biggest thing about Bjugstad for me is that he has shown himself able to overcome adversity and stay relevant while having a target on their back. The last 4-6 series have seen teams focus on the Kyle Rau-Bjugstad-Zach Budish (NSH) line. Although there have been success stories like Wisconsin in the first game of their series with the Gophers, he finds a way to bounce back (he scored a goal in the Saturday game to take the wind out of the Badgers' sails). Even in those off games, Nick makes a difference throwing his weight around and making a difference in all three zones.
The only negative about Nick is that he injured his shoulder during the first Michigan Tech game December 10th and hasn't been 100% since.
Kyle Rau has continued playing well and has scored a goal in each of the last four series. He ended the first half on a high note getting 3 points against Michigan Tech in his final game before the WJC. Rau also leads all freshmen with 12 goals and 22 points and has worked harder than anyone this season on both ends of the ice.
In fact, that's why he made the United States World Junior team after not being invited to the Selection Camp in August. Rau can score but more than that, he works hard and is the type of player to finish his checks and get back to play defense regardless of the score.
Hopefully some of you were able to see Kyle's style of play during Team USA's games. It's not often a combination of speed and grit is put together the way he uses the two and even less in a 5'8" body. His goals against Denmark both came on the doorstep - an area normally reserved for bigger players - but Kyle knows how to make himself known and that's how he has scored many of his goals at Minnesota. It will be interesting to see if he holds up in the second half of the season but for now Rau is the odds-on favorite to be the WCHA Rookie of the Year.
Finally, I got the chance to see Corban Knight and Rocco Grimaldi (in one of his 4 games this season after missing Friday's loss) play when the
Fighting Sioux University of North Dakota played Minnesota in early November. North Dakota has had some injury issues (both Knight and Grimaldi have missed time) but both had their moments when playing.
It's easy to see why Rocco was mentioned as who could have been a top-five pick if he was bigger because the kid makes Speedy Gonzalez look like Regular Gonzalez and has great hands for an 18 year-old. There were a couple occasions when Grimaldi was able to take on 2-3 Minnesota defenders and nearly scored a goal by himself after stealing a puck behind the net and getting an untouched backhand. His goal, however, was a thing of beauty as Grimaldi scored on a quick snipe over Gophers goalie Kent Patterson's shoulder and then proceeded to celebrate by Tebowing. Needless to say, if he can recover from his injuries, Grimaldi is a player for Panthers fans to watch.
Corban Knight on the other hand was a bit of an enigma. At times during the Friday game (the one without Grimaldi) he was held in check other than being a faceoff wiz, but after watching Saturday's game it looked like it had more to do with North Dakota only having one scoring line due to injuries. Knight didn't score in either game but did set up a few attempts and more than anything played physical. At 6'2", 195 lbs he's not afraid to use his body.
That's it. If you have questions or comments, please let me know. I'm going to try to write a couple more Florida updates throughout the year but you can always read my work over at SB Nation Minnesota or ask me on Twitter (I'm @gopherstate) - I try to answer everything. The University of Minnesota faces Notre Dame this Saturday in the Hall of Fame Game, which is broadcast on BTN (hopefully some can see it) and Bjugstad and Rau should be back for it.