In a strong move to boost Kraken scoring punch and signal a win-more-games intent for the coming season, GM Ron Francis acquired Columbus leading goal scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand Friday in trade that sent two 2023 draft picks to the Blue Jackets. The draft picks for next July are a third-round choice acquired from Calgary in the Calle Jarnkrok trade and a fourth-rounder acquired from Winnipeg in the Mason Appleton trade.
When Columbus signed NHL top scorer Johnny Gaudreau for nearly $10 million per season on the first day of the free agency period July 13, the Eastern Conference franchise was expected to ship out at least one star player to stay under the league’s salary cap. The Kraken and its fan base are the happy recipients of the anticipated transaction with Bjorkstrand heading west. The 27-year-old right wing is signed through the 2025-2026 season at a team-friendly $5.4 million average annual value or AAV.
Bjorkstrand (pronounced “bih-YOHRK-strand”) topped Columbus in scoring last season with career highs of 28 goals and 57 points in 80 games. It’s his third 21-plus goal season over five full NHL seasons. He scored a team-high nine power-play goals last season. The 6-foot, 177-pound forward averaged a career-high 17:57 time on ice per game plus three-plus minutes on the power play per game for the first time.
“We’re excited to welcome Oliver to our organization,” said Kraken GM Ron Francis. “He’s coming off of a career year offensively playing top minutes in Columbus. His creativity and hockey sense will be good additions to our forward group.”
When Francis signed Andre Burakovsky, he talked about the “right age group of 27” in the context of a player entering the prime years of his NHL career. At 27, Bjorkstrand fits the same profile of acquiring a player on the way to elite production.
Front office executives from general managers to advanced analytics experts are squarely in the business of projecting the future potential and impact of players, whether prospects or proven NHL players. In Bjorkstrand’s case, the trends all point upward.
One example: He notched 2.38 points per 60 minutes played last season, placing him third among the top four per-60-minute scorers on the Kraken roster behind newly acquired left wing Andre Burakovsky (2.81), 2021-22 leading scorer Jared McCann (2.51) and two-time Stanley Cup winner and fan-favorite award winner Yanni Gourde (2.11).
He’s never dipped below 2.0 points per 60 minutes in his 382 NHL games (ranking him in top 25 percent of all NHLers during the last five seasons, per MoneyPuck) and his production has increased season over season with more time on ice. He set career marks of 17:57 time on ice per game last season, plus enjoyed his first season with three-plus minutes on the power play per game. He scored a Columbus-high nine man-advantage goals last season and added 10 assists.
The Gaudreau signing is no doubt exciting for Columbus fans, players and coaches alike. But it comes with a price of losing a greatly admired player and alternate captain in Bjorkstrand.
“He’s strong on the puck,” said Pascal Vincent, Columbus assistant coach, to team reporter Jeff Svoboda during last season. “His reads are amazing. His hockey sense is really good. He understands quickly.”
Vincent spent multiple seasons coaching with the Winnipeg Jets organization competing against Bjorkstrand: “I didn’t appreciate [how good Bjorkstrand plays] 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.”
Per insider Svoboda, CBJ goaltender Joonas Korpisalo said the toughest shooters on his squad last season were renowned scorer Patrik Laine and Bjorkstrand, the latter “because his release is so different.”
Laine came over to Columbus from Winnipeg himself, traded with Jack Roslovic to Columbus in exchange for Pierre-Luc Dubois in January 2021.
“Obviously in a positive way [Bjorkstrand] surprised me how good of a player he is,” Laine said. “It’s not all about just his goals and assists. I think he’s overall a really good player… he’s on a good path.”
Bjorkstrand signed a five-year contract in the same month Laine and Roslovic arrived. Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen was happy for his young forward and said Bjorkstrand’s leadership contribution made him more than deserving of his alternate captaincy.
“I have loved just how he has progressed,” said Larsen, who played 294 NHL games before embarking on his coaching career. “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.
“If you watch [Bjorkstrand] now, I know what I’m going to get every night, and not just because of his goal-scoring and his points. It’s his consistency and his competitiveness … I watch how hard he competes. We always tried to say, ‘Hey, watch [New York Rangers star Artemi] Panarin,’ when he was here. He’s an undersized guy but he’s ultracompetitive.”
That’s Larsen talking even before Bjorkstrand’s 2021-22 breakout season. There are more than few expert observers who consider Bjorkstrand the best Columbus forward over the last three seasons, filling a void left when Panarin signed in New York as a free agent.
Fun fact: Bjorkstrand started last season with 13 points (five goals, eight assists) in the Blue Jackets’ first 10 games. Only Panarin and all-time CBJ great Rick Nash have done better in franchise history.
Advanced analytics experts consistently give high marks to the Denmark native’s work in the defensive zone, including explanations of “bad puck luck” during a 2021-22 season that proved plus/minus (he was minus-35) is not always the barometer of a player’s defensive worth. One stat that is telling: Columbus goaltending save percentage during his time on ice last was below .900, a mark that doesn’t lead to winning records nor qualifying for the postseason.
Fans of the Western Hockey League Portland Winter Hawks know all about the scoring potential of the Kraken’s newest player. After starring in Denmark’s top league as 16-year-old (notching 26 points in 36 games for a club coached by his father and former NCAA Maine and pro player Todd), Bjorkstrand joined the Winter Hawks for the 2012-13 season. His 31 goals and 63 points in 65 games led to Columbus choosing him in the third round (89th overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft.
From there, Bjorkstrand’s WHL scoring rocketed to 109 points (50 G, 59A) in 69 games in 2013-14 and 118 points (63G, 55A) in 59 games during the 2014-15 season. He was named WHL Player of the Year in 2015.
The next spring, Bjorkstrand was named most valuable player in the American Hockey League postseason, leading the Columbus affiliate Lake Erie Monsters to the Calder Cup championship with 10 goals and six assists in 17 games.