Oliver Bjorkstrand has struggled this season.
No matter how you look at it, his production isn’t there and when you see him on the ice...well, it’s hard to see him on the ice, as he has had far too many shifts/games where he was completely invisible.
Still, Bjorkstrand needs to be in the Blue Jackets lineup and playing regular minutes, and Thursday's game against the Minnesota Wild showed why.
Bjorkstrand is one of the most skilled players on this team. This is a player who was a 40-point scorer last season and showed signs that he had more to give. Four points in 20 games this season isn’t going to cut it, but sometimes patience is needed. It was hard at times to notice him on the ice, but the numbers show despite not scoring that he was playing pretty well.
In 20 games (not including Saturday), Bjorkstrand has a 52.01% Corsi at 5-on-5 per Natural Stat Trick. That ranks third on the team among regular skaters, behind Josh Anderson and Artemi Panarin, two players who nobody would say are struggling.
It’s one thing to drive play, but Bjorkstrand is on this team to create offense. When he was on the ice the Blue Jackets were controlling 52.66% of the scoring chances and 51.22% of the high-danger chances. Whether it was through Bjorkstrand or not, the Blue Jackets were getting good chances when he was on the ice.
We saw this Thursday against the Wild: Bjorkstrand played 11:13 at 5-on-5, he had two shots on goal, six shot attempts and two scoring chances. He was on the ice for seven chances for and four against. He was able to set up his line mates for chances as well as creating them for himself. For the game, Bjorkstrand had a 73.91% Corsi.
Sure, he didn't draw the toughest minutes, but he did see some time with Panarin and played a decent amount against the Wild's top defensemen in Matt Dumba and Ryan Suter.
What has absolutely killed Bjorkstrand this year – and what I would imagine is the reason he was scratched – is the goals (or lack thereof). In spite of strong play, Bjorkstrand has been on the ice for 13 goals against versus just seven for. His 35% goals for rate (GF%) is the second-lowest on the team.
There are a few reasons for this. First, Bjorkstrand is still not a very strong defensive player. When you hear John Tortorella say things like "I just need to see a heartbeat in him and that he wants to play hard on a puck…not to bang, not to body check – to fight for pucks so he can at least get a shot on net," you can’t help but think of his effort in the defensive zone. That needs to be better.
The bigger problem for Bjorkstrand, however, has been that he needs a save to be made behind him. His on-ice save percentage this year is 87.25, the lowest among Blue Jackets regulars (the only players worse are Sonny Milano and Gabriel Carlsson, which might be why they are in Cleveland). That also ranks as the 22nd lowest in the league among players who have played 100 5-on-5 minutes. Part of this is Bjorkstrand’s poor defensive play, but part is just simply bad luck. Sergei Bobrovsky had some struggles in the early part of the season and it affected many players – but perhaps none more than the Blue Jackets' young sniper.
Tortorella was certainly justified in scratching Oliver Bjorkstrand for four games. There are certain areas of his game that need work, and scratching him has appeared to have him re-focused and motivated. He now needs to stay in the lineup. He's playing well overall, and once he starts getting some saves behind him, the goals will come.
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