Analysis: Oliver Bjorkstrand's Effective Play Makes a Strong Case For Increased Ice Time

By Dan Dukart on November 10, 2017 at 10:15 am
Blue Jackets forward Oliver Bjorkstrand
Aaron Doster - USA TODAY Sports

The math is fairly simple: if a hockey team uses 12 forwards in a game, the coach would allot 15 minutes of ice time for each player.

At the NHL level, the game is a meritocracy and such uniformity is rarely (if ever) achieved. The best players play the most minutes.

John Tortorella has the difficult and unenviable task of divvying up the Blue Jackets' ice time. Before you assume we're going to tear into his decisions, remember this: Tortorella has won a Stanley Cup. He's the reigning Jack Adams Award winner, and since taking over the Blue Jackets in 2015, he's posted a 93-63-17 record, a .587 winning percentage, the highest of any of his stops in the NHL and the highest by any coach in Blue Jackets history.

BUT. It's fair to question some of the team's deployment in the first 16 games, specifically pertaining to young and gifted players like Oliver Bjorkstrand. Is he a slow starter? This slow starter is tied for second on the Blue Jackets in goals (five) and has averaged just 13:37 per night, ninth on the team among forwards.

Through 16 games, he's on a pace to score 25.6 goals, which is exactly the pace we expected. His 10 points tie him for third on the team in scoring with Zach Werenski and behind only Seth Jones and Artemi Panarin (12). 

Only Adrian Kempe of the Los Angeles Kings and Ryan Hartman of the Chicago Blackhawks have managed to produce 10 or more points with less average ice time than Bjorkstrand (11 points/12:24 TOI, 10/13:34).

Bjorkstrand is one of just seven NHL players this year to score five or more goals, tally 10 or more points, and do all of that with under 30 shots on goal. For some players (Wennberg), ice time and shots do not appear to be all that correlated.

The frustrating thing about Bjorkstrand's ice time is that in his first couple games, Tortorella used him over the 15-minute threshold. He played 15:57 in the opener, then 16:17 the next night. In 14 games since then, he's played 16 minutes or more just twice. He has three points in those two games. 

Lines are always changing, and Bjorkstrand has moved around a lot. He opened the season playing with Sonny Milano and Nick Foligno, but Tortorella pulled the plug on that quickly. Tortorella moved Matt Calvert up in the lineup and dropped Wennberg to the third line, and thus was born a more recent experiment. 

Since then, the 22-year-old Bjorkstrand has been on the ice primarily with Boone Jenner and Brandon Dubinsky, and the results have been positive. The line has been effective in driving play against the opposition; Per NaturalStatTrick's line tool, the line has posted a 56.67 CF% and has generated 68% of scoring chances while on the ice (all stats at 5-on-5). 

Tortorella prefers the reliable nature of Jenner and Dubinsky but has been rewarded with Bjorkstrand's offensive upside. Bjorkstrand's impact on his line mates, however, shouldn't be overlooked; in the 60-plus minutes of 5-on-5 hockey that Jenner and Dubinsky have played this season without Bjorkstrand, they're at 38.24 CF% and generating 36.36% of scoring chances. 

Even in a limited role, Bjorkstrand is making an impact. Per Hockey-Reference, he's tied for fourth on the team in Point Shares, which they define as "an estimate of the number of points (in the standings) contributed by a player", with 1.3 PS. Only Werenski (2.2), Jones (2.3), and Sergei Bobrovsky (2.5) have a higher Point Share among Columbus players.

In two prior stints with the Jackets, Bjorkstrand's points per game were 0.67 and 0.50. This year, it's 0.63. In his past two seasons, he proved to be a dynamic shooter with a wicked release. He's begun to see more time on the power play, but shouldn't the worst power play in the league give a chance for one of its most skilled shooters a chance to showcase that shot?

It's not like the status quo has been working, and it's not a panic move to promote a guy with his shot. Bjorkstrand, based on his performance, should be playing more than 13:37 per night.

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