Every team needs a skilled forward to anchor them up front. A guy who can play both ends of the ice. A guy who can go head-to-head with the other teams’ elite players. A leader on and off the ice. Someone who can score a big goal and clear the defensive zone when called upon.
In Columbus, it was supposed to be Ryan Johansen.
But after a rough start to the season and constant conflict with head coach John Tortorella, Johansen found himself packing his bags and moving to Nashville thanks to an early January trade. While the Blue Jackets did get a top-pair defenceman in Seth Jones, Johansen’s hole in the lineup was huge.
But Blue Jackets fans need not fear. Johansen’s replacement has arrived and his name is Oliver Bjorkstrand. He left his mark on the Calder Trophy winning Lake Erie Monsters and next year, Bjorkstrand will get every opportunity to do the same with the Blue Jackets.
A Diamond In The Rough
Columbus nabbed Bjorkstrand with the 89th pick in the third round of the 2013 draft. The Danish right-winger fell in the draft mostly because of his size. But even at 18, his offensive upside was well known.
After completely dominating the WHL with the Portland Winterhawks — in 193 games he had 144 goals and 146 assists for 290 points — Bjorkstrand graduated to the AHL with the Monsters this year. In 51 games he had 17 goals and 29 points, his season partially shortened by a concussion early on and a stint in the NHL with the Blue Jackets. It was a respectable season but nothing out of the ordinary for a rookie in his first pro-season.
But then the AHL playoffs happened and Bjorkstrand found his stride. As the Monsters tore through opponents on their way to the championship, Bjorkstrand led the way, picking up 10 goals and six assists in 17 games.
Since coming to North America – 3 seasons w Portland (WHL), 1 w @monstershockey — Bjorkstrand has 47-46-93 in 76 playoff games, w 13 GWGs
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) June 12, 2016
Bjorkstrand is showing that it’s not always the first round top prospects that can become game changers. If his growth continues, he could one day be named the steal of the 2013 draft.
Bjorkstrand Uses Speed to Score
While not officially a center, Bjorkstrand certainly plays like one. At six feet, 177 pounds, Bjorkstrand is far from the biggest guy on the ice. But his speed lets him get to the key areas of the ice to score goals and make plays.
Another angle. He banked it off Peters from an impossible angle. pic.twitter.com/j33f4hSAs4
— Greg Balloch (@GregBalloch) June 12, 2016
That nose for the net was clear when he scored the Calder Cup clinching overtime goal on Saturday night. In that play, Bjorkstrand tracked down a rebound and then banked his shot off of Justin Peter’s pad and in.
That was Bjorkstrand’s second straight game winning goal and sixth of the playoffs. It doesn’t get more clutch than that.
But even before he scored the championship goal, Bjorkstrand was emerging as an offensive force. Take this goal from his time in the WHL, when his Portland Winterhawks competed in the Memorial Cup. As you’ll see in the video, Bjorkstrand makes a quick move to get open and then fires a hard wrist shot past the goaltender.
As Bjorkstrand continues to grow into his body, he’ll be able to score even more goals with his already established speed. At only 21, he still has plenty of time to grow stronger, which is exciting news for the Blue Jackets.
Patience Still Needed
Despite all the excitement a big playoff run can have, it is still important to temper expectations for any young player. While Bjorkstrand’s play certainly has stood out the last few years, he only has 12 NHL games of experience.
Last year the AHL playoff MVP was Jordan Weal. The year before that, Travis Morin. Pump those Bjorkstrand breaks.
— Randall (@randangler) June 12, 2016
His teammates and coaches all praised his competitiveness in interviews after the finals. Words like “special,” “unbelievable,” and “unparalleled,” certainly paint a pretty picture of what kind of player Bjorkstrand is.
Zach Werenski on Oliver Bjorkstrand: “What a special player. It’s crazy how good he is. What’d he have, six game-winners? That’s unreal.”
— Rob Mixer (@RobMixer) June 12, 2016
Kerby Rychel “it’s fitting that Oliver Bjorkstrand scored the game winning goal, he was unbelievable all playoffs” #LEM
— Alison (@AlisonL) June 12, 2016
.@monstershockey coach Jared Bednar on Bjorkstrand: “He has a will to win that’s unparalleled; that’s why he’s always been successful.
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) June 12, 2016
It’s a cliche but it’s true, only time will tell whether Bjorkstrand can become an elite NHL scorer. But after the most recent downer of a season, Blue Jackets fans can look at Bjorkstrand and other Lake Erie players with optimism. And for a team rebuilding, that is as important as anything.
Hockey and media have always been big interests of mine. So I’m very lucky to combine those interests in the work I do for The Hockey Writers.