When Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said after the team’s first full practice on Monday that Anders Bjork looked like “maybe the best player out there,” it was notable.
To be clear, it wasn’t a comment worth blowing out of proportion. As Cassidy noted in that same Zoom call with the media, it was only the first practice after four months off. It doesn’t mean some big breakout postseason for Bjork is right around the corner. The 23-year-old winger isn’t even guaranteed a spot in the lineup.
But it was a reminder of an easy-to-overlook part of this Bruins wing equation. We know what Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak bring to the table on the top line. After that, the questions start.
Will Jake DeBrusk shake off his second-half slump and play like the second-line left wing we know he can be? Will trade deadline acquisition Ondrej Kase get up to speed quickly enough to be the second-line right wing solution the Bruins have long been searching for? What will fellow Duck-turned-Bruin Nick Ritchie give the team? Is Sean Kuraly going to be a fourth-line center or third-line wing?
All valid questions, and all worth watching. But don’t sleep on Bjork. There are reasons to think he can earn a spot in the lineup and make some key contributions during what the Bruins hope will be another long playoff run.
First, there is the skill -- the combination of speed, hands and creativity that allow him to stand out like he did Monday, or that lead an elite winger like Marchand to say he’s trying to learn some of Bjork’s moves, which is exactly what Marchand said a few months ago.
Then there’s the two-way game. Bjork has always been a strong defensive forward, and he continued to get better in that area this season. Evolving-Hockey’s total defense rating (subscription required) actually ranks him second among Bruins forwards in that metric, behind only Charlie Coyle and actually slightly ahead of perennial Selke Trophy finalist Patrice Bergeron.
We are on record in this space of saying those metrics should be taken with a grain of salt. Bjork is not a better defensive forward than Bergeron. But it does help illuminate his impact. He makes plays defensively and in transition that cut down on opponents’ scoring chances and help the Bruins drive play forward. He can also kill penalties, although he’s not at the top of the pecking order among B’s forwards for that.
At the very least, it gives Bjork something of a safety net. Even if he’s not scoring, he’s also not making negative plays, and is in fact making positive defensive contributions. Being able to play on both the left and right side is a plus, too.
The problem, though, and one of the reasons Bjork wound up falling into the 13th forward/healthy scratch spot in the weeks leading up to the pause in March, is that sometimes there just isn’t enough offense to warrant middle-six playing time, no matter how well he does other stuff. Nine goals and 10 assists in 58 games isn't insignificant, but it also doesn't demand attention.
Bjork knows what he needs to do. He took time to reflect on his season during this layoff. There were things he was proud of, such as continuing to improve his two-way play and staying healthy for a full season after missing significant chunks of the previous two seasons due to injury.
But he also identified what he needs to do better to win back the spot in the lineup that had been his for most of the season before Kase and Ritchie arrived and provided more competition.
“I’d say the main thing is just continuing to build that offensive confidence and tenacity that I think I’ve shown in sparks here and there,” Bjork said Wednesday. “Building that consistent offensive confidence and that attack mindset, I think continuing to build that up is something I’m definitely focused on moving forward. I think I did a decent job with that, but it was something I felt was timid at times.
“When I looked back at some of my games and stuff like that, I think there were a lot of opportunities where I could’ve, not made a risky play, but just been ready to go towards the net more. That’s something that my coaches have talked to me about a lot, that with my skillset they said I have to keep building that into my game, because playing offense is the best way to play defense. I want to develop that offensive part of my game, too, and produce more offensively for the team.”
That kind of development is probably more of a long-term focus. It may be that Bjork isn’t quite able to get there right now, in these next few weeks, during this postseason. But he’s working on it, and he’s going to get every opportunity to earn a chance to show it.
Cassidy has made it clear that he isn’t even calling these practices “training camp.” This isn’t preparation for the marathon of a long season. This isn’t the time to focus on developing young players and giving them more opportunities and rotating guys in and out.
This is the time to build for a playoff sprint as quickly as possible, to figure out who your 18 best skaters are, to figure out how they fit together, to get them as many reps as possible, and to get ready to roll come Aug. 2. But Cassidy did say Bjork is very much in the mix to win one of those 18 spots.
“We like Anders as a person, we like him as a player, but we’re going to play the 12 best guys, however they fit in our lineup,” Cassidy said. “He’s certainly in that mix. Is he automatic? No. So for him, this return to play, these practice sessions are more important than some of the other guys because you don’t have a lot of games to prove yourself. So that’s something we’ll be looking for, for him and for a few of the other guys. That’s where Anders is at and we’ll see how it plays out in the next two weeks, three weeks.”
Bjork is embracing that challenge and wants to show he’s ready to play his first NHL playoff games.
“I want to get back into the lineup, and this is kind of an opportunity,” he said. “I feel like I have a lot more to prove to my teammates and my coaching staff, that I can pull some more weight for our team and help out more and chip in more ways. That’s the main thing I want to show and prove.
“This is obviously a big time to be doing it, going right into playoff hockey. I’ve never played playoff games before in the NHL, so I’m excited. I want to show them that I’m excited and have that energy, but also have the maturity I built a little bit to play smart, but energized hockey, and keep that trust and hopefully build on it more from an offensive standpoint.”