The Columbus Blue Jackets needed some positive news. They got it yesterday when 25-year old Oliver Bjorkstrand signed a 5-year, $27M contract ($5.4M AAV) that keeps him under team control through 2025-26.
With the signing, the Blue Jackets sign a player who would have been a pending RFA after 2020-21 while simultaneously buying up four of Bjorkstrand's four UFA seasons in the process. On top of that, the $5.4M cap hit, even in a flat cap environment, is a resounding win for both the player and the organization.
Bjorkstrand, who was drafted in the 3rd round (#89 overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft, is a classic draft-and-develop player. And not to put too fine a point on it, but coming less than a week after the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade request nightmare (and thus avoiding another potentially difficult contract negotiation) is a triumph for the organization, which leans heavily on scouting, drafting, developing, and retaining its homegrown talent. The Great Dane parallels this process perfectly, playing two seasons in the WHL after being drafted and parts of two AHL seasons (culminating in a Calder-Trophy OT GWG) before becoming a full-time fixture in Columbus. In 246 regular-season games with the Blue Jackets, he has 65-68-133, while posting 6-6-12 in 31 playoff games.
In 2019-20, Bjorkstrand appeared to take another step forward in his development, tallying 36 points (and a team-high 21 goals) in just 49 games on an offensively-starved Blue Jackets team that fought injuries all season. His 35-goal pace over 82 games is the highest of his career, and his stock continues to trend up, even as he's managed to fly under the radar of the national media. Before the play-in round this past summer, John Tortorella was effusive in his praise of Bjorkstrand, calling him "our best player".
As The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn noted in his player card, Bjorkstrand's success can largely be attributed to him playing in a more pronounced role. That tracks with our analysis, dating back to 2017. Perhaps playing alongside Dubois and Alexandre Texier on the team's top line will allow the winger to crack the 18:00 average TOI mark for the first time in his career.
A tidy piece of business after Bjorkstrand had a strong breakout* season last year— dom luszczyszyn (@domluszczyszyn) January 6, 2021
* - finally got the minutes he deserved pic.twitter.com/4V4XSWa8ha
Luszczyszyn wasn't the only player card curator to appreciate Bjorkstrand. JFresh noted that aside from being in the 98th percentile for goals/60 minutes, he's also an elite defender.
Charting Hockey's Sean Tierney noted that his model projects Bjorkstrand in the 89th percentile among his position.
Bjorkstrand extends with CBJ for 5 yrs x $5.4 mil— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) January 6, 2021
He's right in his prime and does everything well at 5v5. He settles for shots from some distance but that's because he can really shoot. His PP impact is a little underwhelming but he creates a lot of shot quality. pic.twitter.com/lq3lYpwS14
Lastly, Ineffective Math's Micah McCurdy used his well-known heat maps to evidence that Bjorkstrand is an effective player with a wicked shot.
Oliver Bjorkstrand (5x5.4m extension with Columbus) is an extremely good play-driver with an excellent shot. pic.twitter.com/HiidovAMZc— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) January 6, 2021
Luszczyszyn and Tierney's work attempts to calculate market value for the newly signed contract. Tierney projects Bjorkstrand's market value at $6.4M, while Luszczyszyn's is a more bullish $8M. Additionally, his player chart suggests that Bjorkstrand should be a top-line or top-six player for the duration of the contract.
Bjorkstrand, who's father played alongside Tortorella at the University of Maine, is coming into his prime right when the Blue Jackets need his scoring punch more than ever. Cam Atkinson had an injury-plagued season in 2019-20, and while expectations are he will bounce back in some capacity. Max Domi should dramatically help drive the offense but is more of a playmaker than a pure scorer. Texier, Emil Bemstrom, and Liam Foudy are all a year older in their development and presumably should chip in more offense than a season ago. Mikhail Grigorenko is a wild-card, but even the rosiest of expectations see him as a complementary scorer. Gus Nyquist is out for the foreseeable future, and even with him in the lineup, goal-scoring was an issue.
That leaves a ton of pressure on Bjorkstrand (and Dubois), who can expect to see the opposition's top defense pair on a nightly basis. For the Blue Jackets to take the next step in 2021, they'll need their sniper to continue on his trajectory and take his game to another level. The organization should feel confident that their budding winger is ready for that challenge.