John Tortorella was disappointed with Oliver Bjorkstrand coming out of training camp.
A few months earlier, Tortorella sat in a suite at Quicken Loans Arena and watched Bjorkstrand tear through the Calder Cup playoffs with the Cleveland (Lake Erie) Monsters en route to the franchise’s first-ever AHL championship.
It was an impressive run, one that set the Blue Jackets up for success this season. Bjorkstrand was named the AHL's playoff MVP and it was a slam dunk; the 21-year-old scored 10 goals in 17 playoff games (16 total points), and six of them were game-winners which tied an AHL record.
He was the best player on the ice on most nights. By a mile.
Naturally, Tortorella expected Bjorkstrand to arrive at training camp guns blazing, ready to step forward and punch his ticket. He wasn’t alone in that line of thinking – management had cleared the way for a competitive camp in which the young players had every opportunity to win a job.
Bjorkstrand, to the surprise of many, stumbled in camp.
He started slow and didn’t have any memorable showings in preseason action, and as camp wound down, Josh Anderson had surged past him and Lukas Sedlak was on his way to locking down a spot of his own (didn’t see that coming, did you?)
Sam Blazer of Buckeye State Hockey wrote this after the Blue Jackets sent Bjorkstrand back to Cleveland after their third game of the season:
Out of the players that have played in all three games, he has the least amount of ice time. You may think this is a personal vendetta from head coach John Tortorella but Bjorkstrand hasn’t been able to drive any play either. Last year he was otherworldly with the puck on his stick, whether it was in the NHL or AHL, it didn’t really matter. In 12 games last year Bjorkstrand has an even strength CF% of 50.4. Thus far he has been third to last on the team in even strength CF% with a 43.5.
How could Bjorkstrand, a gifted player with a rocket of a shot, not break through and stick with the Blue Jackets? Tortorella was frustrated while talking about it early in the season.
This time around, it appears Bjorkstrand got the message. He’s been terrific in his most recent NHL stint, which started with an emergency recall on Feb. 14. The same characteristics that made him dominant in last spring’s playoff run have resurfaced, this time at the NHL level: explosive skating, the ability to protect pucks and make quick plays in the offensive zone, and of course, a game-breaking release on his wrist shot.
The Blue Jackets added a forward (Lauri Korpikoski) at the trade deadline and have two forwards (Lukas Sedlak and Matt Calvert) on the mend from injury. The NHL has no roster limit after the trade deadline, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Bjorkstrand stuck with the big club for the balance of the year.
Based on his play, it would be merited – and that's exactly what Tortorella wants. Here's the coach after Sunday's 3-0 win over New Jersey, which Bjorkstrand played a key role:
Since his return, Tortorella has used Bjorkstrand on the team’s top line with Alexander Wennberg and Nick Foligno, and also on the No. 1 power play unit. Wennberg and Bjorkstrand, who were paired together periodically in exhibition games the last two years, have formed a dynamic alliance and it’s already produced two gorgeous goals.
In that seven-game stretch from his emergency recall through the trade deadline, Bjorkstrand was an effective driver of offense at 5-on-5. He was a 50% Corsi player or better in five of those seven games, and earned a season-high 15:22 of ice time on Feb. 19 vs. Nashville.
His strong play is showing on the scoresheet: in 10 games with the big club, Bjorkstrand has seven points (four goals, three assists) and supplied the game-winning goal on Tuesday against New Jersey.
With less than a month remaining in the regular season and the Blue Jackets on the verge of getting healthy again up front, the heat is on Bjorkstrand. It’s one thing to fill in for a few weeks when the team is short a couple of forwards, but it’s another to kick your shoes off and stay a while once the infirmary clears. Hot take: he will be sticking around.
Now, perhaps more than ever, it’s up to Bjorkstrand. And if he’s up for it, he could add a much-needed dimension for the Blue Jackets as they enter the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third time in franchise history.