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Bjorkstrand's all-around game makes him one of the league's best

Dynamic Blue Jackets forward is more than just a goal scorer

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Oliver Bjorkstrand wasn't sure how to reply to the question. 

Looking back at how Bjorkstrand's game has grown over the past few seasons, a reporter couldn't help but wonder -- is the Blue Jackets winger stronger than he looks? 

Putting that question to Bjorkstrand did seem a bit like a backhanded compliment, though. Yes, the forward is listed at what looks like a slight 6-0, 177 pounds, but he has the strength and explosiveness to fight his way through checks from NHL defensemen. 

"I don't know," he replied with a smile. "I feel like it's up to you to decide if I am stronger than I look." 

In truth, it was a better question to ask Pierre-Luc Dubois. The young Blue Jackets centerman is one of the premier power forwards in the NHL, using his 6-3, 218-pound frame -- about 40 pounds more than Bjorkstrand carries -- to power pucks to the net and draw penalties left and right from opposing players. 

When it was suggested to him that Bjorkstrand is impressively strong on the puck considering he's not exactly using Dubois' body to do it, he couldn't help but laugh. 

"Put that in the story, he's not (built like) me," Dubois joked. "But he's strong. Whenever we do one-on-one drills and stuff like that and I go against him, I tell him, 'Get ready.' But he's not easy to push around. He's strong, he's feisty, he fights checks. He goes through guys instead of absorbing (contact) or waiting for it. He goes at them. 

"A lot of guys don't know he's strong. No offense, but he doesn't look the strongest. I think he surprises a lot of guys and he does have that strength." 

The Danish forward will never have the broad shoulders of Dubois or the thick trunk of some of his other teammates. But it's pretty clear his engine runs as strongly as anyone on the Blue Jackets, as he's started to build more of a physical presence to his game. 

Bjorkstrand will never be a big hitter, but this season, he's not absorbing the big hits he seemed to take with regularity in his first couple of NHL seasons. And when it comes to protecting the puck, battling along the wall and other feats of useful strength, Bjorkstrand has gotten quite a bit better in the eyes of head coach John Tortorella. 

"It's one of the biggest improvements of his game," Tortorella said. "Throughout this year -- and as I've said, the last quarter of last year -- you could see him doing the work along the walls, fighting for pucks, protecting pucks. He spent the summer here working on more strength. He's progressed." 

The biggest example of that came on Bjorkstrand's game-winning goal in the final minutes during the Jackets' last game before the All-Star break. The winger skated onto a long pass from Seth Jones as he crossed the blue line, but it seemed like Winnipeg defenseman Dmitry Kulikov had him lined up for a check along the boards.  

But as Kulikov advanced on him, Bjorkstrand threw out his left arm and brushed him aside. The force of that contact pushed Bjorkstrand back into the boards, and at one point, he was up on one skate, but he was able to keep his balance and right the ship before advancing on Laurent Brossoit and roofing a shot into the only little bit of daylight that existed over the goalie's shoulder.  

Video: WPG@CBJ: Bjorkstrand sends puck top shelf for lead

"I think he's stepped up, and the last game he played, it's such a big goal that a lot of goal scorers can't score in that little spot that he tucked it in," Tortorella said. "I'm thrilled about where he's going with his game." 

That tally gave Bjorkstrand a number of impressive streaks. It made him the first player in Blue Jackets history to score multiple goals in three consecutive games, as the winger had tallied twice Dec. 21 vs. New Jersey before suffering an oblique injury and then two more times Jan. 19 in his return to the ice against the New York Rangers. 

He also has the game-winning goal in three straight games as well as nine tallies in his last six games, a hot streak the likes of which has rarely been seen in franchise history. Despite missing nearly a month of play, his 16 goals give him the team lead for the season.  

It's far from the first hot streak of his career -- Bjorkstrand had 63 goals in 59 games his last year of junior hockey and scored nine times in the last 10 games last year on the way to a career-best 23 goals -- and he's learned how to live in those moments over the years.  

"When you feel it, you just feel it," Bjorkstrand said. "It seems like different types of shots go in where other times they wouldn't go in. It's a good feeling. It's definitely something you try to hold on to." 

Yet his offensive contributions are far from the only impressive part of his game. Of the NHL forwards to skate at least 200 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time this season, Bjorkstrand ranks sixth in the league with an expected goals percentage of 59.5 percent when he's on the ice.  

The Blue Jackets also have 57.2 percent of the scoring chances at 5-on-5 when he's on the ice, as well as impressive shot advantages, showing a player who has become one of the game's elite at both creating shot quality for his team and suppressing it for the other.  

That ability to excel when it comes to dictating game play is one of the reasons Bjorkstrand has seen a huge increase in ice time, going from an average of 12:20 a year ago to 17:23 this year. No Artemi Panarin around also plays into it, but the reality is the former third-round pick is blossoming into one of the top all-around players in the game.  

"Some players are able to come in and dominate a little bit more in the beginning," he said. "For me, I just tried to stick with the process, every year trying to take a bigger and bigger step. This year, I've taken a bigger jump and it's just given me an opportunity to get more ice time and take a bigger role, and that's what I've been trying to do." 

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