Jimmy Snuggerud exclusive: Why the Blues prospect turned down the NHL to stay at Minnesota

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When Jimmy Snuggerud took off his gear after the University of Minnesota’s loss to Boston University in the NCAA regional finals last Saturday, he didn’t know if it was the last time he’d do so as a Golden Gopher.

“There were a lot of things going through my mind,” the 2022 first-rounder told The Athletic in an exclusive interview Tuesday afternoon. “A goal of every player is to win a national championship and that was mine this year.”

After a 4 1/2 hour bus ride from Sioux Falls, S.D., back to Minnesota on Saturday night, there was a series of phone calls Sunday morning about whether he’d sign with the St. Louis Blues or return to Minnesota.

The 19-year-old winger spoke with his family advisers from Octagon Athlete Representation. He spoke with Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, current captain Brayden Schenn and former players Keith Tkachuk and Alexander Steen, who both work for the organization. He spoke with Gophers coach Bob Motzko, and he spoke with Minnesota Wild defenseman and former teammate Brock Faber.

“There wasn’t a lot of sleeping going on,” Snuggerud said. “It was a lot of stress and a lot of thinking about what’s truly best for me. There were a lot of questions from my standpoint, and the main factor that it came down to was, ‘What was best for me?’ It’s a really hard opportunity to miss on because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Three days after the 6-3 defeat that prevented Snuggerud and his club from playing in the NCAA Frozen Four in St. Paul, Minn., laying in his bed at home Tuesday morning, he made his decision. He was returning to the Gophers for junior season in 2024-25.

“A couple of nights ago, I kind of felt like I wanted to sign and then I woke up the next morning and didn’t know again,” Snuggerud said. “So I just kind of sat by myself and thought about it all night, just kind of laying there thinking. Then this morning, I just had a real realization and glimpse of what I thought that next year could hold. But this was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life by far. It isn’t close.”

Many Blues fans were hoping to see Snuggerud in the team’s lineup next season if not sooner, but he decided he wanted to help Minnesota win a national championship. Both his grandfather, Jim Westby, and his father, Dave Snuggerud, played for the Gophers. His dad was a member of the team that fell 4-3 in overtime to Harvard University in the 1989 title game, and last year Snuggerud felt the same anguish after a 3-2 OT loss to Quinnipiac University.

“It’s a pretty big deal to me and my family,” Snuggerud said. “I feel like I can lead this team to that point. I know exactly what not to do because I did that this year. The last three months of my college season were very poor and very average and that bites at me every single morning that I wake up and when I go to bed. I know that I wasn’t playing my best hockey and I let a lot of people down. I think we had the team to do it, and we didn’t succeed.

“I think with another year at Minnesota, I can prove that I can play a full season here, and I can be here for my teammates when they need me most. It was an unfortunate loss, but I think it influenced my decision to a point where I knew what I wanted to do.”

There had been much debate in St. Louis in the past few months, and particularly the past few days, about whether the Blues would offer Snuggerud a chance to play in the NHL after his college season ended. If he signed, it would “burn” one full season of his three-year, entry-level contract. The other option was playing with the Blues’ AHL affiliate in Springfield, Mass., on an amateur tryout contract and then joining the NHL team next season.

Snuggerud said that the Blues laid it out “very well” and acknowledged that their plan was for him to play in the NHL this season.

“Yeah, the opportunity was there,” he said. “That’s why it was such a difficult decision, because 12-year-old me would say, ‘What are you doing, Jimmy? This is an opportunity of a lifetime.’ So the opportunity was there at the end of this year, and that’s why it was so difficult for me.”

One of the people who Snuggerud relied on the most was Faber, his teammate in 2023-24, when he chose to return for his junior year.

Faber, who was taken by the Los Angeles Kings in the second round of the 2022 NHL draft and traded to the Wild in 2022, is expected to be a finalist for the Calder Trophy this season.

“It was one of the biggest influences,” Snuggerud said. “Fabes, by no means, pushed me to stay back. He’s super friendly that way, where he cares about my decision and he’s happy for me whichever way I go, and he made sure to tell me that. But he just let me know what it was like to stay another year and what it is like for him now at the pro life.”

Snuggerud came to the conclusion that staying in college next season will help him work on his puck protection and puck control and put himself in a better position to produce scoring chances.

“I want to be able to dominate at every single level that I play at,” he said. “I feel like I had a little bit of that last year, but leaving on a note like this after my sophomore year just wouldn’t sit right inside my stomach.

“My goals and aspirations are very high for myself. I shouldn’t have to use the excuse that I wasn’t getting the puck enough because I was and I will. Whoever I play with, I should be able to drive the line and use my own speed to improve in those areas.”

There will also be a vacancy with the Gophers’ captaincy after Tuesday’s announcement that center Jaxon Nelson had signed with the Boston Bruins. Whether it’s wearing the “C” or an “A,” Snuggerud plans to be part of the leadership group.

“That will help me for my future,” he said. “It’s pretty far away, but that’s my goal, to wear a letter and be there for my teammates. It’s what I talked about with my coach.”

Finally, though, after days of intense talks, Snuggerud can sit back and relax — at least briefly.

“It really is a lot of stress, but then again, it gets me excited to work that much harder, knowing that a team wanted me to play in the National Hockey League,” he said. “It just proves how much harder I need to start working in order to keep growing my game and know that the opportunity was there. I’m just so excited for the summer to grow as a player.”

If Snuggerud had signed with the Blues, he likely would’ve been playing in Thursday’s game against the Nashville Predators. Now he’ll be watching it from back home in Minnesota.

“They’re the team that drafted me and I’m excited to see if they can make this playoff run,” he said. “I have so much respect for the staff there and everyone that has helped me through this. (Armstrong) especially, he’s such a great person, and he has my best interests in mind. I’m so happy to see the Blues succeed.”

The Blues will retain Snuggerud’s rights until August 2026. If still unsigned at that point, he will become an unrestricted free agent. But for anyone concerned about that sort of development unfolding over the next two years, Snuggerud said he has every intention of turning pro after his junior year.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but to be honest, that would be the plan,” Snuggerud said. “I think one more year is my goal in mind. Next year would be the year.”

(Photo: Richard T Gagnon / Getty Images)

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