Welcome to part eight of Blue Jackets’ Pressure Points, our summer review of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Our focus today turns to a player that could help decide the fate of this team.
Gone are players like Scott Hartnell and Brandon Saad. Between them, they scored 90 points including 37 goals to help the Blue Jackets to their best season ever. Someone needs to replace this production.
Artemi Panarin should help in that regard. But another player is ready to crash the NHL scene full-time. Unlike last summer, this player has had a full summer to train and prepare. He’s also healthy.
Oliver Bjorkstrand is ready to roll.
A Quick History
Turn your calendar back to June 12, 2016. Almost 20,000 fans saw one of the best moments in Blue Jackets history when Bjorkstrand’s overtime goal lifted the then Lake Erie Monsters to a 1-0 win in Game 4 of the Calder Cup Finals. That goal was Bjorkstrand’s 10th goal of the postseason and third in overtime. He was the first player in AHL history to score three winning goals in overtime in the same postseason.
Naturally, expectations were sky-high for Bjorkstrand after this majestic performance. What more was there to prove at the AHL level? Surely a spot on the Blue Jackets was a foregone conclusion.
The good news was Bjorkstrand made the Blue Jackets. The bad news was his stay didn’t last long.
The Blue Jackets sent Bjorkstrand back to Cleveland on Oct 21 after a slow start to the season. In his three games, he recorded no points and saw his ice time go from 14:34 to just 8:01 in three games. What happened to the last season’s hero?
Bjorkstrand did not have a full summer to prepare for the upcoming season. The Monsters lifted the Calder Cup in June. The Blue Jackets opened training camp in September. He didn’t have the same opportunity others had. On a side note, really puts into perspective how special Zach Werenski’s rookie year was doesn’t it? Werenski won the Calder Cup on that Monsters’ team then finished as a finalist for the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year.
Bjorkstrand shook off a slow start and started to regain his form with the Monsters. This earned him an emergency call-up to the Blue Jackets in December 2016. He played just two games, but got his first point of the season. You could tell something was finally clicking with him though. He returned to Cleveland on a mission to make sure his next call-up to Columbus was his last.
Thanks to an emergency recall, Bjorkstrand got his chance on Feb 14, 2017. He never returned to Cleveland.
At the time of call-up, Bjorkstrand led the Monsters in goals and was tied for the team lead in points. He also played in the AHL All-Star Game in Allentown thanks to his performance.
Putting Bjorkstrand’s Season In Perspective
Overall, Bjorkstrand put together a nice season in 2016-17 despite the demotion. In 37 games for the Monsters, he scored 14-12-26 and added 6-7-13 in 26 games with the Blue Jackets. That means he scored 12 points in 21 games after recall. That is pretty good.
So why should we be excited for Bjorkstrand this season? His underlying numbers show he is ready for a break out. According to prospect-stats.com, Bjorkstrand produced top-line stats in almost every major category. In other words, he was one of the best players in the league during his time.
What about at the NHL level? Bjorkstrand produced great numbers as well, although it was a much smaller sample size. You can’t put as much stock in the numbers given the limited sample size, but it does give you a glimpse of the upside he has.
Two things stood out to me about Bjorkstrand when reviewing the numbers. First, from a pure Corsi perspective, he generally made his teammates better. According to Nat Stat Trick, his teammates had a higher Corsi-For when playing with him. Again, this is a very limited sample size. But it does show the kind of impact that is possible. Look at the impact of Bjorkstrand on Hartnell in about 90 minutes of 5-on-5 play.
The other thing you’ll notice is Bjorkstrand’s points per 60. In a limited sample, he’s near the top of the league. His 2.5 points per 60 at 5-on-5 puts him at Niklas Backstrom/Mark Scheifele levels. If he can produce at this pace over a full season, look out.
That’s the question here. Can Bjorkstrand continue this pace? The numbers suggest this is a strong possibility given the early results. This is something we will watch closely this season.
Who Will Bjorkstrand Play With?
We won’t see the answer to this question until training camp or beyond. However I do believe Bjorkstrand should get a shot on the top-six right away.
If we assume a top line of Panarin, Alexander Wennberg and Cam Atkinson, I think Bjorkstrand would fit well with Nick Foligno and Brandon Dubinsky given the explosive nature of his game. That line would have a finisher to go along with the balance Foligno and Dubinsky offer.
I’m not sure putting Bjorkstrand on the top line is best given what Atkinson can bring. I don’t think a bottom-six role is ideal either. It’s possible the team could try Bjorkstrand on the left side, although he hasn’t played there much. I expect him to play on his natural right side on the second line. Here’s what my top-nine looks like now. Perhaps we should call this team the Columbus Fun Jackets.
- Artemi Panarin-Alexander Wennberg-Cam Atkinson
- Nick Foligno-Brandon Dubinsky-Oliver Bjorkstrand
- Boone Jenner-Lukas Sedlak/Pierre-Luc Dubois-Josh Anderson
Imagine what adding Matt Duchene would do to this lineup. Then you’d have something like this.
- Artemi Panarin-Matt Duchene-Cam Atkinson
- Nick Foligno-Alexander Wennberg-Oliver Bjorkstrand
- Boone Jenner-Brandon Dubinsky-Josh Anderson
In both examples, you see Bjorkstrand’s importance. He’s potentially your top right-winger of the future depending on what happens with Atkinson.
This is a big season for Bjorkstrand. He needs to prove that his short flashes of brilliance are his norm. If his past is any sign of that, he should have no problem proving that. He could take the Blue Jackets to a new level if he achieves his upside. If he’s just ordinary, then more questions will surface.
My official prediction: A full summer of training will do wonders for Bjorkstrand. Given all the attention that teams will give to Panarin and company, I expect Bjorkstrand to reach 20-25 goals. He’s ready. By midseason, he’ll find a consistent home on the highlight reel. It’s just what the Blue Jackets need.