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The Wild's Trade for Local Star Nick Bjugstad is a Low-Risk, High-Reward Proposition

Photo credit: Winslow Townson (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Wild made a splash in the trade market Friday. Well, it was a splash locally.

Minnesota traded a conditional seventh round pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Nick Bjugstad. The former University of Minnesota and Blaine star spent parts of two seasons in Pittsburgh after playing his first seven with the Florida Panthers.

Bjugstad, 28, has recently battled some injuries that have kept him off the ice for the majority of the past two seasons. He played just 45 games the last two years, including 13 in 2019-20.

So Why did the Wild make this trade?

Minnesota will be hit with a significant lack of center depth this season, especially because Mikko Koivu probably has played his final game with the Wild. Proven NHL depth at center starts and ends with Eric Staal. He will be counted on as the team’s No. 1 center, a role where he has been effective in the past.

Joel Eriksson Ek is the next man up behind Staal. He has been reliable as an NHL center, but he hasn’t shown to be a prototypical top-six player, generating low offensive numbers through his first four seasons. He has 66 points in 210 NHL games, including a season-high 29 last season. After Eriksson Ek, Nico Sturm and Victor Rask rounded out the top-four centers in the organization. Considering Sturm has very limited NHL experience and Rask was relegated to the press box much of the past two seasons, the depth was alarmingly thin.

Adding Bjugstad gives the Wild some room to work at the center position in the short term. Now the team doesn’t have to rely on Rask to play significant time, something both Bruce Boudreau and Dean Evason were wary of doing. If Sturm files into the fourth-line center role, Minnesota has some flexibility as to the middle-six positions and Bjugstad would immediately start at a potential third-line center. But if he regains his mid-20s form, he could earn a second-line position.

Among 186 forwards with 5000-plus 5-on-5 minutes since 2013-14, Bjugstad’s first full NHL season, he is tied for 114th with 1.65 points per hour. Just counting for goals in that same group, he ranks 58th, tied with Staal and former wild forwards Nino Niederreiter and Jason Pominville.

Aside from what Bjugstad has accomplished in the NHL, the Wild acquired him for very little. Despite his $4.1 million cap hit for one year left on his contract, the Penguins retained half of Bjugstad’s contract. This makes it much more reasonable for Minnesota, which still need to address other needs this offseason.

What could go wrong?

Not much could make it a bad deal because the Wild didn’t get rid of a productive player to get Bjugstad. But it could turn out poorly for Minnesota next season if Bjugstad can’t rebound from a few down years. He is coming off back surgery, which limited his action to 13 games and two points last season, making his health situation a variable before he suits up again.

In terms of standing points above replacement (SPAR), Bjugstad has only been significantly above zero in one season. While he also does only have one significantly below zero as well, he factors in as a replacement-level NHL forward through his eight seasons as a pro.

If Bjugstad doesn’t find his A-game, Evason and the coaching staff could have a hard time figuring out what situations to use him in. If the Wild don’t buy out Rask’s contract, that would mean two centers are in the press box gathering dust and making $6 million combined.

What makes this a good deal for Bjugstad?

The Penguins are a good team. But for an aspiring center looking to revitalize his career, it may not be the best situation considering they have arguably the best first- and second-line centers in the NHL with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Bjugstad now comes to a roster with plenty of experienced wingers and center depth that could see him move across the lineup. All of that opportunity will need to pay off for the 28-year-old since this is the final year of his contract. After two injury riddled years, he will need to prove himself to either the Wild or the rest of the league to get another contract when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

With all the opportunity for a center on the Minnesota roster, his knack for shooting the puck could be a valuable asset. He’s averaged 9.1 shots per hour at even strength in his career. For current Wild reference, Kevin Fiala has averaged 8.4 shots in the same situations in his two years with Minnesota. Bjugstad has an offensive presence that the Wild desperately crave, especially from a center. If he can capture his best game, he can deliver and greatly improve his free agent stock at the end of the season.

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