The Secret Strength in Oliver Bjorkstrand's Game

By Alison Lukan on November 25, 2020 at 1:20 pm
Columbus Blue Jackets forward Oliver Bjorkstrand fights for the puck against Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.
Aaron Doster – USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to hockey, evaluating offense comes easy. We can easily see (and measure!) players who score goals, complete passes, set up shots, and set up scores. But measuring defense is much more difficult. How do we measure the prevention of something?

And, when we add in the complexity of measuring a forward defensively…a player that we traditionally think of being responsible for offense, well, that’s a whole other can of worms. Particularly because a “defensive forward” is usually viewed as not having a ton of offensive upside.

So, what if I told you that last season’s top goal scorer (21) for the Blue Jackets was also one of their most sound defensive players? Yep, that’s right, my friends, it’s time to talk about Oliver Bjorkstrand’s defensive impact.

This all started when Hockey Graph’s Shawn Ferris tweeted out a visual from Hockey Viz that highlighted the Dane’s impact in the Blue Jackets’ own zone last season. For reference, blue marks the areas on the ice where shots came at a lower rate than league average while red marks areas where attempts were firing off at higher than league average.

The darker the color, the greater the difference from average.

That’s a pretty impressive map. Reducing an opponents’ offensive quality by 14-percent is not just the best of Bjorkstrand’s career, it’s the best of any Blue Jacket skater last season. For comparison, last year’s Selke Trophy winner, Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier had the same offensive impact as Bjorkstrand according to Hockey Viz’s model (plus-10%) but had a defensive impact of minus-4.

But what does this mean? Well, blessings to Twitter because we didn’t have to wait long for some more information to consider. It didn’t take long for Hockey Graphs’ Chris Watkins to chime in.

And Watkins backed up his explanation with a viz from his own “wins above replacement (WAR)” model showing how effective Bjorkstrand would be if he truly was a defenseman compared to a forward.

Chris Watkins' model evaluates Bjorkstrand's offensive and defensive play

So, interest piqued, I quickly reached out to these hockey minds to see what they think makes Bjorkstrand such a weapon defensively as well as offensively.

First up, the creator of this chart, Micah Blake McCurdy. What is his first thought when his model generates a chart like Bjorkstrand’s? “My immediate conclusion is that the player in question is probably very good defensively,” McCurdy said.

But does this speak to a specific part of the player’s game?

“For defensive forwards I suspect a big part is being aggressive in their own zone, taking the kind of risks that get the puck out with possession,” McCurdy said. “But, I'd go poking around from there into model stuff if I was trying to get a bead on the player.”

On to Ferris and Watkins. Do they see something happening in Bjorkstrand’s play? Is it that the puck is never in the opponents’ zone because so much offense is happening? Is it because Bjorkstrand is doing something special in the D-Zone? Is it because of who he’s playing with?

Let’s dig in.

Ferris pointed to Bjorkstrand’s stability this season, something that’s taken some time to develop in previous years, he also cited an increase in quality of teammate for the winger this year. Eight of Bjorkstrand’s goals were assisted by top line center, Pierre-Luc Dubois, with Gustav Nyquist coming in second with helpers (6) and Seth Jones adding three setups before number 28 put the puck in the net. Bjorkstrand definitely benefited from top line time.

But it’s also not that simple. It’s not just about the puck being on your stick means it’s not on your opponents’. After all, in Artemi Panarin’s last year in Columbus, the most dynamic offensive player on the ice had a defensive impact of minus-2.5 according to McCurdy’s model.

So what else might be part of Bjorkstrand’s skill set that we haven’t truly appreciated?

While Watkins was definitely quick to credit Bjorkstrand’s ability to maintain possession and not waste quality scoring chances, he shared other thoughts revealed in his model.

“The simplest explanation is he's one of the league's top skaters (especially, in terms of drawing penalties),” Watkins said. “And is in the top 10% in terms of balancing getting the puck out and making it hard to get the puck in.”

The chart below lays out some of the elements of Watkins’ model, with each element measured in terms of player percentile. Here’s a look at Bjorkstrand’s last four seasons.

Oliver Bjorkstrand's career progression using Chris Watkins' WAR ModelChart via Chris Watkins

“The reason why (Bjorkstrand) rated so strongly as a defender is that he's pretty physical, skates well, and had really high assists/60 numbers which, for defensemen indicates the ability to exit the puck out (of the defensive zone) which he does well.”

Using tracking data from Corey Sznajder (support him HERE), we see that Bjorkstrand ranks in the “neutral zone wizard” quadrant when it comes to transition play, and to perform so when his frequent line mate (Dubois) is the team leader, speaks to how many opportunities Bjorkstrand was able to create in this part of game.

Oliver Bjorkstrand ranks as one of the top neutral zone players for Columbus

Chart via Corey Sznajder

This all certainly isn’t to say that Oliver Bjorkstrand should line up across from David Savard on the blue line going forward. His gift is in his offense and it’s how he helps his team the most, but don’t sleep on the contributions this player is making in all three zones, tilting games the Blue Jackets’ way not just offensively, but defensively as well – even if it doesn’t look like blocked shots, big hits, or entry denials.