The Columbus Blue Jackets aren’t mathematically eliminated from the playoffs at this point, however realistically there’s not much hope for a trip to the postseason this year. As a result, head coach Brad Larsen needs to start experimenting with his assets in order to get an early preview of next season. The perfect player to experiment with first would be forward Emil Bemstrom, who has struggled to this point in his NHL career apart from his solid rookie season in 2019-20.
Bemstrom was a fourth-round pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft and during the 2018-19 season, he proved he had a scoring touch at the professional level by scoring 23 goals and 35 points through 47 games in his rookie season in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) with Djurgårdens. Following that performance, general manager (GM) Jarmo Kekalainen was able to bring him over to North America where he had a fairly strong rookie campaign during the 2019-20 season. That season he was able to put up a total of ten goals and ten assists for a total of 20 points through 56 games.
Since his rookie season, Bemstrom hasn’t been at the same level and he has been struggling with injuries. As a result, his NHL ice time has been drastically limited. Over the last two seasons, including the one in progress, he has played a total of 43 games and has only put up 11 points in that time frame. He also had a short four-game stint in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Cleveland Monsters, where he scored two goals.
Why Bemstrom Should Play in the Top-6
It may seem questionable to reward a player who has seemingly underperformed by awarding him more ice time. With Bemstrom, it’s a bit of a different situation though. He’s a player whose game is built for the top-six, and using him in a third or fourth-line role will certainly limit his production. He’s not a grinder who will throw the body around, nor is he a 200-foot player who is going to change the game with his defensive ability. His play in Europe has shown that he’s a pure offensive player who is going to make a difference with his skill in that department and nowhere else.
The Blue Jackets have quite a few young players with a similar style of play, however, Bemstrom seems to be the least likely to be able to develop a different style. As a forward who can play multiple positions, notably center, he’s a useful player if he can reach his potential. He’ll never be able to do so if he’s playing in a bottom-six role though, and with the opportunity for the postseason behind the team this season, it would make sense to see how he performs in a bigger role now, rather than never explore the option if he continues to underperform in an unsuitable role.
Playing Bemstrom with players like Jakub Voracek, Patrik Laine, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Gustav Nyquist might be a difficult decision for the coaching staff to make, as it can easily be misconstrued by the other players as rewarding bad play. Regardless, it’s a move that has to be made, otherwise, you risk not only Bemstrom’s long-term development but also his usefulness as an asset for the organization. In a best-case scenario, the team discovers that they have a legitimate top-six level forward, the worst would be the team has a line lose productivity for three or four games with little meaning. Either way, the organization learns if it’s worth continuing to develop him or if they should attempt to move him before his trade value becomes non-existent.
Even though Bemstrom wasn’t a high draft pick, you’d think that the last thing that the organization would want to happen is a repeat of Sonny Milano’s time in Columbus. He has become a key part of the Anaheim Ducks’ rebuild and often plays alongside their rising star Trevor Zegras on their second line. Considering the only return the Blue Jackets got for him was Devin Shore who played a total of six games with the organization, they cannot afford to repeat that mistake. Failing to develop a fourth-round draft pick certainly isn’t as bad as not being successful with a first-rounder, but if you have a player who you believe is ready for the NHL by the age of 20, then you need to give him a chance to succeed long-term.
The Blue Jackets have done fairly well historically with mid-to-late round draft picks. Under former GM Scott Howson, they added players such as Matt Calvert and Cam Atkinson who became key players for the organization. During the Kekalainen era, they’ve selected Bjorkstrand, Elvis Merzlikins, and Vladislav Gavrikov, to name a few, in the third round or later. Bemstrom can be the next mid-round pick who becomes a key player for the organization if his development is handled correctly. There’s no guarantee he’ll turn into an important player, but giving him as many opportunities as possible will make it more likely and this season is the perfect time to evaluate what he can bring to the team.
William Espy is a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus. He has been writing about hockey since 2016 on various platforms. He currently covers the Columbus Blue Jackets but had a previous stint covering the Calgary Flames.