Last week we posted our video analysis of Seattle’s biggest free agent signing of the summer, Andre Burakovsky. This week, we return with a look at Seattle’s most significant veteran addition overall, trade acquisition Oliver Bjorkstrand. As was the case with the Burakovsky breakdown, this analysis is mostly built on watching tape from Bjorkstrand’s 2021-22 season, and I have compiled all of his shifts from three of his games for you to follow along:
- Dec. 11, 2021, at Seattle Kraken: First Period, Second Period (missing a shift; see it here), and Third Period
- Apr. 28, 2022, versus Tampa Bay Lightning: First Period, Second Period, and Third Period
- Apr. 29, 2022, at Pittsburgh Penguins: First Period, Second Period, and Third Period
Again, all of these videos are linked in a playlist on the DeepSeaHockey YouTube channel, so you can watch them all in a row there.
**Author’s Note: These are the first large video compilations I made, and, regrettably, the videos uploaded below HD quality, so the tape gets a little a grainy if you watch it on a large screen. I believe I can avoid this moving forward.
It is evident on tape that Oliver Bjorkstrand thinks the game at an elite level. He combines the ability to do many small things to help a line succeed with the ability to finish at the net and score 20-to-30 goals. While he is slight in frame and not the most dynamic athlete, his deep repertoire of skills indicates he will be a top-line, all-around forward for years to come.
Oliver Bjorkstand is a 27-year-old, left-shot winger and veteran of seven seasons, all with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Oliver is the son of native Minnesotan Todd Bjorkstrand, a former professional hockey player and coach. Oliver was born in Denmark to his mother Janne, a native of Herning, and grew up in that country speaking Danish with his mother and English with his father at home.
Bjorkstrand played two years in Denmark before joining the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL for the 2012-13 season. After the Dane tallied 82 points across 86 regular- and post-season games for Portland, he was selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the third round, 89th overall, in the 2013 draft. Bjorkstrand played two more seasons with Portland, topping an impressive 140 regular- and post-season points each year, and then joined the Blue Jackets organization in 2015. The 6-foot-0, 177-pound forward split time between Columbus and the Cleveland Monsters of the AHL for two years before settling in as a full-time NHL regular in 2017-18 at 22 years old.
In Jan., 2021, Bjorkstrand signed a five-year, $27 million extension with Columbus. When the Blue Jackets faced a salary cap squeeze after the unexpected signing of Johnny Gaudreau, Columbus traded Bjorkstrand to Seattle on July 22, 2022. He has four years left on his contract, with a $5.4 million annual cap hit.
Bjorkstrand established himself at the highest level a little later than most of his comparable players. To this day he remains a wiry player without blazing speed or physical attributes, so it took him some time to figure out how to deploy his game at the NHL level. In his age 22 and 23 seasons, Bjorktrand produced approximately half a point per game and topped 20 goals for the first time in 2018-19. In 2019-20, Bjorkstrand’s role in the Columbus offense expanded and his volume of offensive production grew with it. In his last year in Columbus he posted a career high 28 goals and matched his career best 29 assists.
Bjorkstrand’s strong all-around contributions are perhaps best captured by his Corsi (shot attempt differential) and Fenwick (unblocked shot attempt differential) percentages when he was on the ice in Columbus. Incredibly, he not only posted positive differentials in each of these categories every season, he also posted positive “relative” short attempt differentials (i.e., his team did relatively better in shot differential against the opposition with Bjorkstrand on ice rather than off the ice) in every season. This owes in some part to an offense-forward role (as indicated by his “Offensive Zone Start %”) but also to his remarkably deep skill set as a player.
In his first two full years in Columbus, Oliver Bjorkstrand filled a third-line role, but since the 2019-20 season, Columbus has deployed Bjorkstrand for top-line-equivalent even-strength minutes. He oscillated between first- and second-unit power play responsibilities throughout this time, but in 2021-22 he clearly established himself in the primary group and paid off that ice time with a career high nine power play goals.
Similar to Andre Burakovsky, Bjorkstrand has not been deployed on the penalty kill in normal situations. It is worth noting, however, that he was alert to a game situation and trusted by the coaching staff to jump over the boards and fill a penalty killing role when one of his teammates was injured and had to leave the ice in Columbus’s April 29, 2022, game. He did not look out of place at all in Columbus’s similar triangle-and-one scheme. But for the fact that his ice time is better used at even strength and on the power play, he looks like he would be a fine penalty killer.
At even strength, Bjorkstrand played on the right side in an offensive-forward role in the games I viewed from 2021-22.
On the power play, the Dane most frequently lined up in the slot (the “bumper” position) this past year, but also saw time in the left circle. In man advantage transitions Bjorkstrand commonly served as the second trailing forward with support responsibilities if the penalty killers shut down the advance of the primary trailing forward.
In four-on-four or three-on-three scenarios, Bjorkstrand was almost always in the primary unit.
A scout might get tired writing out all of the good things Oliver Bjorkstrand does on the ice. I can’t claim to be a scout, but I know I found it is easier to list the few areas where he is not exemplary.
So let’s start there: Bjorkstrand is a wiry thin player. He plays much stronger than his size in critical respects, but will not bring physicality to a unit. He is also not an elite athlete by NHL standards; he is quick and slippery in short areas, which is more important in many ways, but he will not be the fastest or most dynamic Kraken forward.
Beyond that, I struggled to find any area of his game that fell below average. He constantly finds the puck offensively and defensively. He succeeds skating the puck in transition and drives play when in the offensive zone. Most impressive to me was his ability to maintain puck control through traffic and contact even at his size. His shot is very strong (if perhaps a fraction of a step below Andre Burakovsky’s elite level). On the defensive side he challenges on the forecheck and disrupts opposing breakouts and transition at a very high level.
Circling back to his gameplay analytics and micro-statistics, I was pleased to see my tape evaluation born out in those numbers. Bjorkstrand does a lot to drive success for his team. OK, let’s dive into the video.
High-end play driving and play involvement
When you watch Oliver Bjorkstrand’s shifts, it seems like he is always around the puck or in possession of it. He has very high-level instincts and intelligence on the ice. While he plays within the scheme, he is always active in space, closing out on opponents, blocking shots, or disrupting zone exits and frustrating opponent transition. He anticipates pressure points for the opposition and has a strong intuitive sense of where a pass may be attempted and is quick to disrupt or intercept.
He often serves as the F1 (high player) in the neutral zone forecheck scheme, a position from which he causes disruption at an impressive rate, and quickly looks to turn transition back into the offensive zone.
On the offensive side, he anticipates offensive zone dump-in entries and commits to recoveries, and produces at a very high rate, even if he is not the biggest player.
On the puck, he quickly turns a defensive zone touch into controlled possession moving the other direction. Very frequently he is just making the right play, giving his team the best chance to set up in the offensive zone, cycle, or score. If the situation dictates, the puck is on and off his stick in a flash. In another scenario, he is slippery and skilled enough to hold possession or draw in the defense to free a teammate.
On this play, Bjorkstrand is alone in transition, checked at the blue line by two Kraken defenders; but he is able to flip it to himself deep in the corner and set up play in the offensive zone. It is a simple play, but actually making it work requires a combination of vision, agility, and tenacity that relatively few players can deliver. Here, he executes a clever pass through traffic to free a teammate with controlled zone entry.
One 30-second stretch encapsulating his value came near the end of the second period of Columbus’s visit to Seattle on Dec. 11, 2021. Bjorkstrand begins by gathering a loose puck in the defensive zone and immediately keys transition with a short pass. After the Blue Jackets create a shot on goal, the Kraken recover and look to clear but Bjorkstrand pressures on the forecheck and then anticipates the passing lane, ultimately deflecting the saucer pass out of the air, causing a turnover to the Columbus blueliners. About ten seconds later he jumps on a loose puck in the neutral zone and skates in on a two-on-one break that ends with a tap-in goal off Bjorkstrand’s shot.
A similar shift came at the 11:10 mark of the third period against Tampa Bay on April 28, 2022. Bjorkstrand gathered a loose puck in the defensive zone and faced heavy forechecking pressure. Displaying elite ice vision, he made a clever indirect pass to the weak side, facilitating a zone exit where one seemed improbable. Even so, Tampa recovered the puck at their own blue line. But Bjorkstrand then jumped the passing lane on a stretch pass and took possession in the neutral zone. He beat a stick check in the neutral zone, skated into the offensive zone, and beat the goaltender for a goal.
In summary, Bjorkstrand’s greatest value is in these subtle areas. He drives positive play and sets his teammates up for success. Corey Sznajder’s visualization from his tremendous All Three Zones website shows how Bjorkstrand created shots for himself and his teammates at a rate far higher than anyone else in Columbus last year.
In this regard, his play contrasts markedly with that of Burakovsky, who does several discrete things very well but often times does his best work if others on his line are setting him up for success. For this reason, I’d be curious to see if Bjorkstrand and Burakovsky would work as compliments to each other on the same line.
Very strong shot and scoring touch
That said, not all of Bjorkstrand’s contributions are subtle; he can score goals at a high level. Three distinct skills make him a threatening all-around scorer. First, he has a very strong wrist shot. He is deceptive, often surprising the goaltender with the quick release or shot angle. Combine that with above-average velocity and accuracy and he is a threat to score anywhere from the circles down.
Second, his hands are impressive. He can receive and release close-area passes or slightly off-target passes in an instant. This makes him dangerous in the bumper role on the power play.
Third, he goes to the difficult scoring areas. He takes a very high volume of his shots from the slot. And, when the situation dictates, he goes to the front of the net with abandon. Particularly for a smaller player, he is willing to take all manner of abuse at the top of the blue paint if it gives him a chance for a tip in, deflection, or screen on the goaltender.
He does not use the one-timer or slap shot much, but I like what I have seen from him when he does let those shots go. It is possible the Kraken could give Bjorkstrand a look in the left circle on the power play.
Very strong puck handling in transition and cycling in the offensive zone
The third aspect of Bjorkstrand’s game that really stands out is his puck possession skill. Early in his career, his offensive skill set was more shot-oriented (like Andre Burakovsky), but he honed his handling game later at the NHL level, largely from mimicking the play of Artemi Panarin.
He is very strong on the puck for a player his size, combining impressive hands with remarkable balance and resilience through body or stick checks. In this clip he defeats multiple stick checks in a contested puck situation to win control and generate a shot for Columbus. Here he skates around and through a heavy body check, somehow maintains puck control, and scores.
On the cycle, and in close quarters, Bjorkstrand is quick and skilled on his edges. In this clip he loses Jared McCann with some nifty footwork and a shoulder fake to create space for a pass to a teammate. Just seconds later, he holds possession for an extended period in the zone, stopping the Seattle defense in its tracks and generating a shot.
He frequently carried the puck in even-strength transition line rushes, with successful entry rates driven by his quickness, puck manipulation, and ability to diagnose the defense. In this clip, for example, he carries through most of the defense with pace and skill to apparently establish in the offensive zone before the play is whistled down on an offsides call. Per All Three Zones, last season, Bjorkstrand’s controlled zone entries leading to a scoring chance per sixty minutes (3.1) would have led the Kraken (who had nobody above 3.0).
On the power play, he was the second “trailing forward” in transition, who would be called on to navigate the puck into the offensive zone if the defense took away the first option.
Good defensive zone play
As a winger, Bjorkstrand is assigned to put puck pressure on opposing blueliners and win puck battles above the circles and along the boards. He performs this role well, nearly always displaying quality effort. But I often also saw him take on added defensive responsibility, dropping low in the defensive zone to clear the puck away from the net or support defensive-zone breakouts like a center would normally do. Here again, Bjorkstrand provides a relatively subtle contribution that drives down opponent scoring opportunities.
Outside the defensive zone, Bjorkstrand is a committed backchecker.
Above-average passing and play creation
While Bjorkstrand’s possession and shooting skills are the strengths of his offensive profile, he also demonstrates above-average hands and vision to create plays for his teammates. In this clip, he connects a long-distance pass on the tape of his teammate across the power play formation. Here, from high in the formation, he spots a teammate for a would-be tip in and delivers a crisp pass that his teammate fails to finish.
In the clip below, he has the vision to keep a pressured play alive in the offensive zone and eventually spaces to a position to receive the puck back and score the goal himself.
Average-to-below-average straight-line speed and athleticism
Bjorkstrand does not win on high-end athletic traits. He is fast enough and won’t lose too many foot races out of sheer force of will. But he does not separate from defenders in space or win a cycle with his speed. While his overall athleticism is adequate, ideally he would deliver a little more given his smaller size. This is probably the only thing holding him back from true star-level performance, because the skills and smarts are there.
Bjorkstrand is a slender 6-foot-0 forward incapable of landing bone-crunching hits or separating opponents from the puck through brute force.
But he is remarkably strong for his size at the point of a puck battle. In the clip below he willingly engages two larger defenders behind the net and ultimately comes away with the puck. Plays like this recur in Bjorkstrand’s tape. So, while he’ll never be a “physical specimen” on the ice, I actually came away impressed with his ability to deal with and counteract physical play.
Below-average physical stature
Again, Bjorkstrand is not big. Combined with his average straight-line speed, a viewer might be tempted to question the plaudits thrown Bjorkstrand’s way, particularly in some of his quieter stretches. And his small frame could be risky in the long term given his heavy puck-touch-oriented game. He has already dealt with some injuries, including a major ankle injury in 2020. This is something to monitor. That said, he is skilled at avoiding contact from closing defenders, which often spares him from punishment that might otherwise not be sustainable at his size.
Projecting Bjorkstrand to the Kraken
Oliver Bjorkstrand is not an elite-level talent who can single-handedly dominate a game with speed, physicality, or skill. But he is among the very best NHL players in the next tier. He is cerebral and brings well-rounded strengths that will amplify the performance of just about any line you could put him on.
With Seattle, I’d expect Bjorkstrand to land on the right wing, likely in the top-line role, though I could also imagine him with the second grouping behind a first line that includes right-shot winger Jordan Eberle. He should also land on the top power play unit for the Kraken either in the bumper position or in the left circle in the Kraken’s 1-3-1 scheme. Assuming a healthy season, the 27-year-old should easily clear 50 points and find himself in the mix for team MVP honors.
Obtaining Bjorkstrand’s age 27-30 seasons for the cost of two middle-round picks is one of the finest moves this front office has made. It improves Seattle’s outlook into playoff contender territory in the coming years.