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Bjorkstrand forcing NHL to take notice with hot start

One of the league's most underrated players is turning in his best hockey yet

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Oliver Bjorkstrand already has the best nickname on the Blue Jackets. The Maestro is a fitting way to describe how the Danish forward conducts himself on the ice, with the ability to make things happen all over the ice with hard work, excellent vision and one of the sneakiest, best shots in the world. 

But there's something else people might want to start calling Bjorkstrand -- the most underrated player in the NHL.  

OK, it's a subjective term, but if Bjorkstrand has started to turn heads around the league in recent years, he should very well have their full attention now.  

The winger already has made some Blue Jackets history in the early going -- with 13 points on five goals and eight assists, he has more points through the first 10 games than anyone in franchise history not named Rick Nash or Artemi Panarin -- and on a list of the top 10 players in the league in points per game, it's a compilation of NHL superstars and Bjorkstrand. 

Video: CBJ@NJD: Bjorkstrand scores PPG with one-timer

His is a name that doesn't get brought up a ton when it comes to the best players in the league, perhaps because his personality isn't very flashy, and his game has some subtleties to match. He's a quiet assassin, someone people know is good until they see him in person for a while, at which point good starts to turn into great. 

"I told him that," new CBJ assistant Pascal Vincent said before the season. "I said, 'As an opponent, I didn't realize how good you are.' He's strong on the puck. His reads are amazing. His hockey sense is really good. He understands quickly, and I was talking to (Joonas Korpisalo) today and I said, 'Who are the toughest shooters to stop?' He said, well, (Patrik Laine) obviously, and Bjorky because his release is so different. 

"I didn't appreciate it as much as I should have. I think that would be true for people around the league. We knew he was good, that he was a good player, but I didn't know how good he was." 

Vincent isn't the only person brought in from Winnipeg who believes the same. Laine is no stranger to scoring goals or unleashing a shot that makes goalies look foolish at times, but he had played only a handful of games against Bjorkstrand over the years having spent his entire career in the Western Conference before being traded to Columbus. 

Now that he's spent the past season and change with the Blue Jackets, Laine can see what the hype is about.  

"Obviously in a positive way he surprised me how good of a player he is, and hopefully he can just get better and better," Laine said. "It's not all about just his goals and assists. I think he's overall a really good player and still youngish, so he's learning, but he's on a good path." 

And for Bjorkstrand, it has been a path. A native of Herning, Denmark, and the son of a coach and former professional player in his father Todd, Bjorkstrand made it to his home country's top league as a 16-year-old in 2011-12 -- and shined playing on his father's team, scoring 26 points in 36 games that first season. 

From there, he headed to North America, and his skills immediately translated to the Western Hockey League, one of Canada's top junior leagues. Bjorkstrand notched 31 goals his first year with Portland, then put up obscene numbers the next two seasons after being drafted in the third round by Columbus in 2013, posting lines of 50-59-109 in 2013-14 and 63-55-118 in 2014-15.  

But while that created expectations, Bjorkstrand took some time to make it as a full-timer at the NHL level. He spent most of his first pro season in 2015-16 in Cleveland, memorably dominating the Calder Cup Playoffs as the Monsters won the championship, but it took time for him to become a consistent difference maker at the NHL level. 

He played 12 games with the Blue Jackets that first year, then just 26 a year later. He was first a full-time NHLer in 2017-18 when he had 11 goals and 40 points, but he was scratched at times a year later as he struggled to find his offensive game. 

But ever since then, Bjorkstrand has grown and grown at the NHL level. He finished the 2018-19 season red-hot while posting a career-high 23 goals. He had 21 a year later in a season short-circuited by injuries and Covid, then led the Blue Jackets in scoring a season ago with an 18-26-44 line in 56 games.  

Video: DAL@CBJ: Bjorkstrand scores sweet opener

This year more than ever, at age 26, he's become a key person the Blue Jackets are depending on. With a number of the team's leaders gone from previous seasons, he was given an alternate captaincy coming into this season, and with a five-year contract extension in his back pocket, he's depended on as not just someone who can contribute offensively but someone who is part of the team's DNA.  

"I have loved just how he has progressed," Larsen said when Bjorkstrand was named an alternate captain. "One of the hardest things I believe for a guy to stay in the NHL is consistency, to be competitive and be consistent in your structure, your work habits, your gym habits, your diet, how you are going to get bigger, get stronger. It's all these things that come, and now you're a first-time pro (when you first arrive).  

"There was a lot on his shoulders, and he went through the wringer. If you watch him now, I know what I'm going to get every night. I do, and not just because of his goal-scoring and his points. It's his consistency and his competitiveness. Not having a 6-4 frame, I watch how hard he competes. We always tried to say, 'Hey, watch Panarin,' when he was here. He's an undersized guy but he's ultracompetitive. So he was a guy that I think has just grown into the role and was ready to take that next step." 

If there's one place Bjorkstrand thinks he's progressed, it's in what Larsen was referring to. He had to learn on the job what it takes to bring it night-in, night-out in the NHL, finding out what it means to be consistent at the highest level. 

Until now, the biggest piece of the puzzle missing was a hot start. Throughout the years, Bjorkstrand has been someone who can put together scoring streaks, but they've usually come as the season progressed. This year, it's come at the start, as he already has four multipoint games in his first 10 contests. 

"I think for me it's just a mind-set of coming in and making sure you're ready to play your best hockey when the first game starts," he said. "For me, it's been a learning curve, being ready from the beginning. … It's just preparing for the game the right way and making sure your body feels good, and there's a lot of stuff that goes on away from the rink, things like recovery and food, this and that. You have to make sure you feel good in the game and have your mind set in the right areas." 

And if there's one place the head coach and player agree, it's that Bjorkstrand has even more to give. While his point production, boosted in part because of a power play that got off to a strong start to the season, has been impressive, the player admits he's been "sleeping a little bit in certain situations" in the early going. 

"He's coming," Larsen said. "I think he's leading our team in points, and that's always a positive, but I think he's got more in the bag. And that's not a criticism. I just have really high expectations for him in a positive way. It's not to condemn his play, but I know there's a whole other level he can even get to. I look forward to see where he goes, too, throughout the season." 

But on the whole, Bjorkstrand has become a fully realized version of The Maestro. If it keeps up, he won't be one of the most underrated players in the NHL anymore, as his play is making people around the league take even more notice.  

And while he's never someone to chase celebrity, contributing at an all-star level is exactly what Bjorkstrand wants. 

"It has been a learning curve for me," he said. "When you're young, you try to figure it out, and for me I feel like every year I've learned what it takes more and more. That's helped me stay more consistent in my game, and I think my first few years, there's definitely parts to show you can be a good player, but what sets people apart is how often you can do that. 

"I feel like every year, I've taken a step in the right direction. This year, I want to take another step." 

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