It's fair to say that Emil Bemstrom had an up and down rookie season for the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019-20.
The 21-year old Swede was touted as a winger with cannon of a one-timer and a knack for scoring. It was projected that he would help the power play after losing Artemi Panarin (another right-handed shot with a one-timer) to free agency. And while that never really came to fruition, he did put up impressive counting stats (10-10-20) despite skating just an average of 12:16 through 56 regular-season games. In the playoffs, Bemstrom appeared in just five games, going scoreless while averaging a meager 9:09 TOI, as the Blue Jackets returned to full health and Bemstrom's spot in the lineup lessened.
But what does that mean for Bemstrom heading into his second season in the NHL?
While the majority of the Blue Jackets roster is in off-season conditioning/training mode, Bemstrom went to the SM-Liiga, Finland's top professional league, joining HIFK Helsinki. Through 12 games (as of this writing), he leads his team with 12 points (7-5-12).
Emil Bemstrm Ensin pelastus omassa pss, heti pern voittomaali Melkoinen vaihto @BlueJacketsNHL lainalta #Liiga #HIFK @ifk_helsinki— Liiga (@smliiga) October 13, 2020
Katso kaikki Liiga-videot ilmaiseksi https://t.co/yUtEqMksye pic.twitter.com/JYHtn6Ii4y
Playing in Europe this fall could be a win across the board for Bemstrom. Playing in a minor role this past postseason was less than ideal for the young winger, who had success in Sweden's SHL before making the jump to the NHL last season. And while it's misleading to suggest that a limited role hurt his long-term prospects, regaining his confidence (if it needed to be regained?) should be beneficial for the player, and therefore, his NHL club.
The biggest question heading into the upcoming season is assessing where Bemstrom fits in a lineup that needs goals. The winger (who can also play center) is unlikely to play on the projected top-line with Pierre-Luc Dubois, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Alexandre Texier. He could slot in on the second line alongside Cam Atkinson and Max Domi, but it also wouldn't be surprising if someone like Gus Nyquist takes that role, demoting Bemstrom to a bottom-six role.
Part of the issue with playing Bemstrom in a bottom-six spot is that his assets (creativity, shot) are at odds with the culture of the role (shot suppression). Playing alongside Mikko Koivu and someone like Boone Jenner/Nick Foligno (projected third line players) would be less than ideal, as the Swedish scorer would benefit from playing with a creative, dynamic playmaking type.
Does that mean that Tortorella should skate Bemstrom on the fourth line? To me, that is the scenario that makes the least sense for his short and long-term development. Playing alongside Riley Nash and, say, Eric Robinson/Kevin Stenlund/Liam Foudy in a lessened role would prevent him from getting the offensive zone touches needed to properly utilize his scoring prowess.
Per NaturalStatTrick, Bemstrom played more minutes (5v5) with Dubois than any other player on the Blue Jackets roster in the regular season (211:16). Ironically, he skated second-most among forwards (176:27) with Sonny Milano, and that fits the billing of playing the Swede with a crafty, creative forward. Third most among forwards is Alexander Wennberg (140:46), who has also moved on. With Milano and Wennberg gone, is there a natural fit in the current lineup that helps Bemstrom achieve his potential?
That's the million-dollar question. Playing Bemstrom in a checking role makes little sense, though there are precedents for bottom-six, power-play specialists (hello Sam Gagner) with this coaching staff.
One paradox in the Blue Jackets lineup is that the club is starved for goal-scoring, yet there doesn't appear to be a natural fit for this particular goal-scorer. The expectation is that Bemstrom will continue to improve - he's still only 21 - in his second NHL season, and it wouldn't come as a surprise to see him start in a lesser role and climb with time. Finding the right fit for Bemstrom could go a long way in helping the Blue Jackets find success in the new season.