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Teammates again: Swedes Bemstrom, Lilja stick with Blue Jackets

After skating together last year in Europe, pair has made Columbus' opening roster

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

When Jakob Lilja was mulling over NHL offers this summer, he had a voice telling him he should sign a contract with the Blue Jackets. 

It wasn't an angel or a devil on his shoulder. It was Emil Bemstrom. 

The two played together in their native Sweden a year ago, and Bemstrom -- a fourth-round pick of the Blue Jackets in the 2017 draft -- knew he'd be headed to Columbus this year to try to kick-start his NHL career. He wanted his teammate from Djurgådens IF to join him. 

"I told him, 'Sign in Columbus so I can be with you,'" Bemstrom remembered Tuesday with a smile.  

Lilja confirmed that version of events, even if continuing to play with his sweet-shooting countryman wasn't a determining factor in his eventual choice.  

"He talked to me during summer and said that I should come here," Lilja said. "Of course, it's always good to go over when you know somebody. That was not exactly why I came here, but of course it helped." 

And now, in another sign that the hockey world is a lot smaller than the world at large, the two are slated begin the season with Columbus after the Blue Jackets' announcement Tuesday of the team's 23-man season-opening roster.  

Video: Bemstrom finds out he's made the team

In fact, they might even be on the same line. From the trio of Lilja, Bemstrom and Sonny Milano, two of the three seem ticketed to serve as the wingers on a line with Riley Nash. If it's the two Swedes, they'll be able to lean on the chemistry they built a season ago, when Bemstrom's 23 goals as a 19-year-old led the Swedish Hockey League while Lilja's 37 points tied for 10th. 

"I think you start to learn a guy when you've played with him and you know where he is on the ice and what he would like to do," Lilja said. "It feels good to know him better because you have a feeling what he wants and where he goes." 

"I know how he plays and I know he's strong in the corners," Bemstrom added. "It's awesome so far for him. I'm so happy for him. Last year, he was so good the whole season, and hopefully it's going to be the same this year, too." 

The interesting part is neither was assured of a spot upon jumping across the pond. On the strength of his historic campaign a season ago -- he placed third all-time for goals in a season among teenagers in the SHL -- Bemstrom was a decent bet to stick, while Lilja was signed as a 26-year-old veteran who had never played in North America before. When Lilja got to Columbus, the team's coaches knew next to nothing about him, but a two-goal effort in a preseason game at St. Louis grabbed attention. 

"I didn't know who he was before he came here," head coach John Tortorella said. "He's been strong on the puck. It looks to me he understands positioning. He's a little bit older guy, can shoot the puck, scores two goals. I told a couple of guys that were borderline with him going along the way, in exhibition games, if you get those chances you have to score. He does. A couple of guys didn't, and sometimes that's the fine line of keeping you here to get a longer look. 

"He's here because he deserves it." 

Now the two will be counted on to be a key part of what you could call a fourth line, but it won't be one in the traditional sense. Tortorella admitted Tuesday that the days of having a fourth line to keep an opponent in check physically are largely gone, and his hope is to create a line that's hard to play against but also can hold its own offensively.  

Lilja's two goals in the game vs. St. Louis tied him for the team lead in the preseason, while Bemstrom's exploits in Sweden and Milano's well-known offensive pedigree show the line could end up being a dangerous one, especially if Nash has a bounce-back season in the middle.  

"I want to try to play my fourth line more," Tortorella said. "You're looking to get some goals from them, too. It's just changed. You look at our personnel right now, it's going to be more offensive of a fourth line than we've had. I go back to I think in 2016 when it was (Scott Hartnell), Sam Gagner and (Lukas Sedlak). It was one of the top fourth lines in the league. 

"There's going to be more offensive people on that fourth line. We'll see where it goes." 

Lilja says that fits his game, while Bemstrom also says he's committed to doing what he can to help the team on both sides of the ice. But more than that, the two Swedes are just excited to be able to chase their NHL dreams, and doing it together is the cherry on top. 

"That's why I signed here," Lilja said.  

"It's a dream come true being here," Bemstrom said. "It's what you want when you're a kid. I'm just so happy to be here and play hockey." 

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