Just how good is Oliver Bjorkstrand?
Well, I can’t honestly tell you how good the newest member of the Seattle Kraken is now, but I can say something about how good he was, and he was something special.
Bjorkstrand, a 27-year-old scoring winger, was acquired by the Kraken on Friday in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets, which sent third- and fourth-round draft picks in 2023 to Columbus. He’s had a solid NHL career, registering 111 goals and 123 assists in 382 games over seven seasons with the Blue Jackets. The analytics people will tell you he’s significantly better than his surface numbers, too.
But during his time with the Portland Winterhawks from 2012-15, Bjorkstrand was about as good a junior hockey player as I covered during my 12 seasons as The Herald’s Everett Silvertips beat writer.
Bjorkstrand had an epic WHL career. The Denmark native tormented the league during his three seasons in Portland, using his rare combination of speed and skill to pile up 144 goals and 146 assists in 193 games. During his 19-year-old season in 2014-15 he had 63 goals and 55 assists in 59 games and received the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy as the WHL Player of the Year. I remember thinking during preseason there was no way the Blue Jackets were gong to send Bjorkstrand back to the WHL because he was already too good for the league at 18, and at 19 his development would stagnate in juniors due to boredom. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.
And oh how he liked feasting on the Tips. Bjorkstrand appeared in 36 games against Everett, including both the regular season and playoffs. In those games he toyed with Everett, registering 25 goals and 29 assists as the Winterhawks regularly battered the Tips senseless. In 2014-15 alone he racked up 18 points in eight regular season games, and that was when Everett finally was competitive with Portland.
Bjorkstrand and his running partner Nic Petan were so good that Everett coach Kevin Constantine was forced to develop a unique strategy when the teams met in the second round of the playoffs in 2015. That year Bjorkstrand and Petan would play these wildly long 90-second shifts. The opposing players would put up a valiant fight for half the shift, but then tire out from chasing Bjorkstrand and Petan all over the ice, and eventually the duo would carve out an opening for an inevitable goal.
Everett had a fourth line of Graham Millar, Logan Aasman and Jake Mykitiuk that wasn’t much of a threat to score, but consisted of three WHL veterans who could be depended upon to carry out an assignment. So what Constantine did was have whichever of his top three lines was matched up against Bjorkstrand and Petan play the first half of the shift, then after about 45 seconds he’d send on his fourth line to play the second half. The only time Everett’s fourth line ever saw the ice was at five-on-five when Bjorkstrand and Petan were mid-shift and Everett was able to find enough daylight to get in a quick line change.
It was kind of genius, and it was effective for about two games before Everett started losing forwards to injury. The Tips had no depth up front that season, and as soon as a player got hurt the domino effect meant Constantine was no longer able to deploy the tactic. Portland, which lost Game 1, went on to win the best-of-seven series in five.
Yep, Bjorkstrand (along with Petan) was such a good junior player that opposing coaches had to devise gimmicks to try to stop him, and even those only worked temporarily.
Obviously Bjorkstrand hasn’t had the same kind of impact at the NHL level as he had in the WHL. But he was a contributor in Columbus, and his arc is still on the rise as last season he set career highs in both goals (28) and points (57). The Blue Jackets found themselves in a salary-cap crunch after landing the league’s top unrestricted free agent in Johnny Gaudreau, and Seattle was the beneficiary.
And maybe — just maybe — Bjorkstrand will be the Kraken’s breakout star in 2022-23. He’s produced magic in the Pacific Northwest before, I wouldn’t bet against him doing it again.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.