Former Portland Winterhawk Oliver Bjorkstrand completed his first season of professional hockey this past weekend – and what a year it was.
Like most players, you can bet Bjorkstrand had his sights last summer set on making an immediate impact in the NHL. But the reality is few players see that goal met and often more development time is needed – which is typically also in the player’s best interest.
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the third round (89th overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft, the Jackets saw fit to assign Bjorkstrand to its American Hockey League affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters, this year.
If Columbus’ goal was to put the Herning, Denmark native in ‘a position to succeed’ – as the cliché goes – it would seem they nailed it and Lake Erie has a Calder Cup to prove it.
The CHL Import Draft is somewhat of a mystery to most CHL fans each year. Sure, there may be a few big names that ring a bell to those that follow the European junior ranks or the World Juniors, but largely fans don’t know what to expect when their team calls a name or two in June. Little did Winterhawks fans know when the club snapped up Bjorkstrand 26th overall in 2012 they were getting a player that would turn into arguably one of the most dominant WHL players in recent years.
Bjorkstrand’s rookie year with Portland saw him notch 63 points (31g-32a) in just 65 games and another 19 (8g-11a) as the Winterhawks marched to a WHL Championship. The slick-skating forward would have been a top candidate for WHL Rookie of the Year honours that season, but a teammate by the name of Seth Jones had something to say about that.
The next year, Bjorkstrand and the ‘Hawks returned to the WHL Championship Series thanks in part to 109 regular season (50g-59a) and 33 playoff points (16g-17a) from the Danish forward. Though the Edmonton Oil Kings downed the Winterhawks in an epic seven-game series, Bjorkstrand’s season saw him named to the WHL’s Western Conference First All-Star Team.
In 2014-15, it appeared it was finally time for Bjorkstrand to seize the leading role. One look at the numbers he posted in his first two WHL seasons would suggest otherwise, but while teammates such as Jones, Ty Rattie, Nic Petan, Derrick Pouliot and Matt Dumba among others combined with Bjorkstrand to create powerhouse squads – they also cast a considerable shadow.
That season, Bjorkstrand took the reins and never let go. As an encore to his 109-point campaign the previous year, he casually posted 118 points (63g-55a) in just 59 games. Yes, fifty-nine. Add a plus-60 rating to that and you’ve got your 2014-15 Bob Clarke Trophy (top scorer) and Four Broncos Memorial Trophy (WHL MVP) winner. Portland’s run was stopped in the Western Conference Championship Series by the eventual WHL Champion Kelowna Rockets, but not before Bjorkstrand added 25 more playoff points.
All told, Bjorkstrand netted 367 points (181g-186a) in 252 career WHL regular season and playoff games. Not to mention claiming the aforementioned honours and representing his native Denmark internationally a host of times.
Having clearly proved his worth in the WHL, you’d have been hard pressed to find anyone who thought Bjorkstrand would be back for his 20-year-old season in the WHL last year.
So, off to Lake Erie it was.
Adjusting to the professional game isn’t easy. Ask any player who’s gone through the process. Bjorkstrand’s 29 regular season points (17g-12a) this year weren’t earth-shattering, but not too shabby. Enough at least for the Blue Jackets to confidently call up the youngster for an extended 12-game stretch in late March and early April.
Cool experience to get to play my first game in the NHL! https://t.co/EJjhCWJ1Lm
— Oliver Bjorkstrand (@OBjorkstrand) March 18, 2016
Bjorkstrand made good on the opportunity, scoring his first two NHL goals in his second NHL game against New Jersey on March 19th. When his first taste of NHL hockey wrapped up on April 8th, he had eight points (4g-4a) to his name and never saw less than 14 minutes of ice in any game.
Hello again, Cleveland.
Back on the farm, the Monsters were ready for their Calder Cup Playoffs run. Maybe it was the taste of NHL hockey still on his palate, but Bjorkstrand simply went off.
The rookie registered 16 points (10g-6a) in the Calder Cup Playoffs, good enough to tie for third in post-season scoring and tops among all first-year players.
The most important point came with 1.9 seconds remaining in the first overtime of game four on Saturday night. That’s when Bjorkstrand struck to give the Monsters and the City of Cleveland their first title since 1964.
In fact, Bjorkstrand was so good down the stretch he was awarded the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the MVP of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
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
One would have to think, at 21-years-old, the former Winterhawk will get a long look from the Blue Jackets this fall if he isn’t a lock to crack the roster already.
After all – as with every level Bjorkstrand has played at so far in his young career – what’s left to prove?