Hockey players are really, really good.
OK, it’s obvious that only the best of the best make the NHL, but sometimes I think even NHL fans forget just how good the best of the best really are.
Just remember: A year ago, an online movement chose to push John Scott for the All-Star Game simply because he appeared to fit the bill as the worst possible choice: a pugilist seemingly without actual hockey skill.
Of course, the whole thing had a happy ending when Scott chose to embrace the spectacle, but what really took it to the next level was Scott going all Snipey McSniperson in the All-Star Game with a top-shelf beauty.
So yes, even the NHL’s worst of the worst are actually the best of the best. The margin of error, the difference between success and failure, is razor thin. The skaters are all incredibly skilled, while the goaltenders are the very best in the world at what they do. In this environment, scoring goals requires talents that might not be obvious to the naked eye.
For example, Jonathan Quick wrote a series of pieces two years ago for The Players’ Tribune about what makes the elite NHL goal scorers stand out. Keep in mind, this is in a league in which just about every skater can pick a corner and put it there if given enough time, so in Quick’s writing, it becomes very clear that those who stand out are those who use deception, who can shoot hard from any angle, who have the ability to do something just a little bit different to get goaltenders off of their game.
Which brings us to The Maestro. There are some guys who can shoot with the best of them in Columbus – Brandon Saad and Cam Atkinson quickly come to mind as players who can can put it where they want it in the blink of an eye, and Zach Werenski’s ability to get shots through traffic is nothing short of astonishing – but Oliver Bjorkstrand is showing signs of joining the elite since his return to the Jackets
Take this goal scored against New Jersey earlier this year.
Not only does Bjorkstrand show excellent patience and vision with the puck – two qualities he’s exhibited in spades in his return to the NHL – look at how he delivers the puck. He may seem off balance, Bjorkstrand is able to turn his hips into shooting position and use his quick release to let go a shot that is by the goaltender before he can react. Simply put, there aren’t a ton of guys who can get this much power and placement on a shot from this position in the league.
How about this one?
Again, Bjorkstrand shows his vision, realizing a play behind the net could very well end with a centering pass. Then, when he gets there, he’s not exactly on-balance again, but he makes no mistake with the shot, showing a quick release and pinpoint accuracy despite the traffic in front.
His first goal of the year was also a beauty.
More often than not, you’ll see players who score on a breakaway or in a shootout do it by using a move to beat the goaltender. It’s difficult to just let one go and sneak one by given the size of goaltenders, their ability to cut down angles, and their ability to read shooters. Goaltenders are looking for a tell on a breakaway, some sign of what a player is going to do, whether it's going to be a shot or a move; figuring that out and being in position is often the difference between a save and a goal.
But watch how quickly the puck is off Bjorkstrand's stick in this case. He gives no wind up or indication when he'll let it go, which is worse-case scenario for a goaltender, who is still caught between committing to the shot or preparing to move with the shooter on a deke. With Bjorkstrand's hair-trigger release, his shot is able to beat our old friend Curtis McElhinney.
In a league where such artistry is truly appreciated, hearing head coach John Tortorella talk about Bjorkstrand’s shot is instructive.
“I’m not sure if he’s worked at that when he was younger or if that’s just an innate ability,” Tortorella said. “I just think it’s within him.
“It’s a wrister/snapper. It changes angles really quickly. It’s within his body, it’s outside of his body. He does a lot of different things with the puck. I think he just has it. I think he just disguises it so well, and he shoots from so many different angles. He can shoot within his skates, he can shoot outside. He just disguises it so very well that – you have to ask the goalies. That’s hard to track, how quickly he gets it off.”
Since Bjorkstrand was recalled from Cleveland, the 21-year-old has shown increased ability away from the puck, the drive to pester defenders and cause havoc in the offensive zone, and the ability to have the puck find him in traffic.
But as great as those characteristics are on the ice, it’s his quick release and ability to light the lamp that will likely most excite Blue Jackets fans for the foreseeable future.