Bjorkstrand makes quick adjustment to Portland, WHL
Wednesday, 12.05.2012 / 3:10 PM
How did the Portland Winterhawks discover Oliver Bjorkstrand? Simple -- they watched him on TV.
The talent they first saw on the screen about a year ago has manifested itself on the ice as Bjorkstrand has shown a wider audience a skill set that has allowed him to develop into a top prospect for the 2013 NHL Draft.
A 5-foot-10.5, 167-pound right wing, Bjorkstrand leads all first-year Western Hockey League players with 14 goals, and is tied for the top spot in points with 27. His four power-play goals are tied for second on the Winterhawks, and he has a plus-20 rating in 28 games.
NHL Central Scouting rated him 11th among WHL prospects in its preliminary top 25 rankings.
"He's sort of one of those players that you might classify him as sneaky-good," Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald told NHL.com. "His skating is a little odd, but he always gets to the right spot. He's really tough on the puck, he really stays on the puck and he goes to the net. He has very quick hands, very good hands. He knows how to make a play. He can give and go. He's the type of player that the better players he plays with, the better level he'll go to."
How Bjorkstrand landed in Portland is as much good fortune as good scouting.
Mike Johnston, the coach/general manager of the Winterhawks, was watching the 2012 World Junior Championship on television in his office last year when he flipped on the Canada-Denmark game.
"Denmark was playing Canada and they had two 16-year-old players on their team," Johnston told NHL.com prior to being suspended for the remainder of the 2012-13 season by the WHL. "We looked at them and said, 'Jeez, 16-year-old players playing in the World Junior Championship, that's quite incredible.' We watched both players and Bjorkstrand kind of intrigued us, just what we saw."
What they saw was a player who had two goals in six games for Denmark at the WJC, while further research showed him totaling 13 goals and 13 assists in 36 games with Herning in Denmark's top professional league. His 26 points made him the third-highest scoring teenager in the league, and he added three points in 10 playoff games as Herning won the league title.
Portland selected Bjorkstrand with the 26th pick of the CHL Import Draft, but there was no guarantee that Bjorkstrand would choose to come to North America. In Denmark, he was playing a big role for a championship team in a professional league, where he was coached by his father, Todd. Oliver's older brother, Patrick, was a linemate.
However, Johnston knew Bjorkstrand was no stranger to North America -- Todd Bjorkstrand is a native of Minneapolis who played four seasons at the University of Maine and four seasons in North American minor leagues before spending his final 14 pro seasons playing for Herning.
"We thought maybe this might be a player who might want to come to North America," Johnston said.
In fact, Bjorkstrand told NHL.com he was looking at a career across the Atlantic before he knew Portland was interested. After meeting with Winterhawks staffers, Bjorkstrand said he knew moving to the WHL would be a good next step for him in his hockey career.
"When you play in Denmark there's not a lot of scouts there, you don't get recognized," Bjorkstrand said. "I really wanted to get drafted this year, and if I wanted to get drafted a little higher this year, it was really important for me to come to North America and play hockey to get noticed more by the scouts. Portland, I'd heard a lot of great things -- great coaching, really great organization. After they drafted me I talked to them. I was happy about it and came over here."
While the adjustment to a new country, ice surface and brand of hockey wasn't easy, Bjorkstrand did have a bit of an advantage on other European players making the jump to North America. Because of his father and that side of his family, Bjorkstrand's English is good -- he said he always spoke English at home with his father and he's improving that by attending the same high school as a number of his Winterhawks teammates -- and he had spent parts of many summers with his father's family in Minnesota.
"I've been over here every summer for a couple weeks visiting family and being in the States," he said. "I knew what I was coming over to. The schooling is a little different here, getting adjusted to that. It wasn't that big an adjustment because I knew how it was over here from my dad."
He's made almost as smooth a transition on the ice. Johnston said it didn't take long for him to see Bjorkstrand's high skill level.
"It was one of our first couple games of the year and it was a fairly physical game," Johnston said. "He's an interesting player in traffic. He's one of those guys that has great focus on the puck. He always seems to come out of the pile when a guy is taking a run at him or there's a bunch of traffic; he seems to come out of the pile with the puck all the time. He dodges checks. He's kind of a slippery type of player that way. You always worry with contact and with the amount of contact and with not as much space and as much time, you worry that European players will take longer to adjust. Once he was able to handle that, I was truly confident. He has great intelligence on the ice, has a real good stick, great shot. His skating has picked up over the course of this year with the pace of the game."
The more he's played, the better he's gotten. In 14 games prior to Nov. 1, Bjorkstrand had six goals and 12 points. Since Nov. 1, he has eight goals and seven assists for 15 points in 14 games, including three two-goal games.
"I thought the playing style I'd pick up pretty quick," Bjorkstrand said. "I didn't really know my skill against the other kids. Didn't really know where I was before I came over here. So far I think I've done pretty good, just trying to improve my game and get better every day."
The next steps in his improvement will be with Denmark at the Division I Group A World Junior Championship, to be held Dec. 9-15 in Amiens, France, and most likely a spot at the Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game on Jan. 16 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Bjorkstrand said that kind of extra attention won't bother him a bit. Actually, he relishes it.
"I don't know if I feel the pressure," he said. "It motivates me to work harder in the games. When you know there's scouts at the game you want to play good. You want to show you're a high-prospect player. If you hear there's a scout at the game, it just makes you work harder at the games and just to show them that you want to try to make it to the NHL."