It's a bit dramatic to suggest that Oliver Bjorkstrand is a well-kept secret in the NHL.
While his development has been on a steep upward trajectory over the past few seasons, I would surmise that he's likely still underappreciated by fans and underrated by his opponents.
The 25-year old right-winger has been on a tear for the last calendar year-plus, displaying the goal-scoring acumen that made him such an exciting prospect years ago. As it stands today, Bjorkstrand is the team leader in goals with 21 in just 49 games, just shy of his career-high 23 he set in 2018-19, where he played 77 games.
Like all goal-scorers, Bjorkstrand is a streaky player. The difference between Bjorkstrand and other high-end snipers is that his ice time is unusually suppressed. That changed a bit this season, where his 17:56 average TOI is easily the most in his five-year NHL career, but it's still lower than most top-line players. This article stands to argue that he should be playing top-line minutes, as he's a top-line player. Aside from scoring at a high clip (more on that later), he consistently makes his linemates better, is strong on both sides of the puck.
CBJ had only four line combos that played together for 100 mins or more and that implies the story of their injury-riddled season. pic.twitter.com/u7jhYvtBYf— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) April 27, 2020
Bemoaning the Dane's ice-time is not a new hobby of mine, but this year, in particular, one would think his ice time would have been even higher due to a glut of injuries. In fact, he was fifth on the club in average TOI among forwards, behind Pierre-Luc Dubois, Gus Nyquist, Boone Jenner, and (somewhat inexplicably) Nick Foligno. By all accounts, Bjorkstrand did what was asked of him by the coaching staff, which was becoming stronger and being harder on pucks. I guess I shouldn't complain - his ice time increased by over 2:30 from 2018-19.
As it stands today, Bjorkstrand, who has one of the best releases in the NHL, is recovering from a high ankle sprain and fracture he suffered after going hard into the boards against Philadelphia on February 20th. He had surgery on March 3rd, and the club went 3-3-2 in his absence before the pause.
If we take the 49 games he played this season and add them to the last 33 games of last season, we get a glance at his past 'full season' over 82 games. His stat line: 37-21-58. Mind you, he's far from the only NHL player to have scored more than 37 goals over their past 82 games, but, again, his productivity as a function of his ice time and per game is remarkably high. Over the past two seasons, only Dominik Kubalik (.44) and Vladimir Tarasenko (.42) have a higher goals-per-game rate than Bjorkstrand (.35). This season, of the 78 players with 21 or more goals, Bjorkstrand ranks 50th in average TOI. Then there's the below from JFreshHockey, who aggregates information from several curators (EvolvingHockey, NaturalStatTrick, HockeyViz, The Athletic) to give easy-to-follow player cards. Bjorkstrand's given '2nd liner' ice time and produces in the 99th percentile in goals/60 over the past three seasons (even-strength only), 92nd percentile in goals above replacement (even-strength), and 98th percentile in wins above replacement in 2019-20. The kicker? His market value is listed at $10.68M per season, more than four times higher than his annual cap hit.
Forward Player Card: Oliver Bjorkstrand— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) April 9, 2020
Bjorkstrand is the most underrated player in the NHL. He's extremely strong at both sides of the ice at even strength and an elite goal scorer. Given a top-six role for the first time in his career, he crushed it. #CBJ pic.twitter.com/slgnoThHOF
Bjorkstrand will be an RFA in summer of 2021, at which point he'll command a major raise. While his new salary won't even come close to the projection above (note: only Connor McDavid, Artemi Panarin, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner have a higher annual cap hit, per CapFriendly), it wouldn't surprise me if Bjorkstrand, who will be 26, becomes the highest-paid player on the roster. That argument is for a different day when hockey is being played again. And without speculating when hockey may return, it's hard to know if Bjorkstrand will be available to play. Per The Athletic's Aaron Portzline:
The Blue Jackets expected Bjorkstrand to miss eight to 10 weeks, targeting his return somewhere between April 28 and May 12. Like Jones, he’s been able to slow the pace of his rehab. But it seems reasonable to expect a return by late May or early June.
Should the Blue Jackets get Bjorkstrand back in the lineup this season, it would be a huge win for the club. But either way, having him in the lineup into the future will be a win for a team that struggles to score goals.