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Winterhawks have goals in mind after draft steal

Bjorkstrand expected to contribute on both ends of the rink


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Denmarks Oliver Bjorkstrand, tracking the puck, has been one of several high-scoring forwards for the streaking Portland Winterhawks.The Portland Winterhawks selected Oliver Bjorkstrand with the 26th pick of the 2012 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, meaning 25 other teams overlooked the skinny kid from Denmark.

It’s been a steal for Portland.

The Columbus Blue Jackets picked Bjorkstrand in the third round of the 2013 NHL Draft, the 89th player chosen.

All signs point to Bjorkstrand being a steal for the Blue Jackets.

The 18-year-old Bjorkstrand has enjoyed a stellar second season with the streaking Winterhawks, entering this weekend’s games with a team-leading 43 goals and 53 assists for 96 points. A season of 100 points looks certain, a tally of 50 goals seems possible. He has almost 100 points — playing on Portland’s second line with Taylor Leier and Chase De Leo, although Bjorkstrand joins leading scorer Nic Petan, Brendan Leipsic, Leier and Derrick Pouliot on the Winterhawks’ lethal first power play unit.

Mike Johnston, Portland’s general manager and coach, smiles when he talks about Bjorkstrand. Why not? It’s yet another success story for the Winterhawks under Johnston, as all players he seemingly brings in turn into dandies. Johnston watched Bjorkstrand play at the 2011 World Junior Championship for Denmark as the lone 16-year-old player in the tournament. Other teams watched Bjorkstrand as well, but many of them passed on selecting him in the Import Draft until Portland picked him at No. 26.

“There were some good players that year, but he was a good one for that spot,” Johnston says. “Some teams were looking for an older player, some people thought he was kind of skinny and not very strong, and how would he handle North America? We just liked his skill. We decided to take a chance on him.”

Bjorkstrand played with Leier and De Leo for the second half of last season and the Western Hockey League playoffs and Memorial Cup tournament. He had 31 goals and 32 assists (63 points) during the regular season, leading all WHL rookies. The Blue Jackets waited until the third round of the NHL Draft to pick him, but they have been impressed with the winger.

“He’s a tremendous offensive player who also works defensively as well,” says Paul Castron, director of amateur scouting for Columbus. “He’s so quick. Not the prettiest skater, but he’s fast and agile and competitive and he’s got a great stick. I just think he works so hard.

“The best compliment you can get after you draft a kid like that is scouts come up and say that kid you took in the third round is a lot better than a third-round pick. It’s nice to here. But he’s putting in the work.”

Bjorkstrand hails from Herning, a small city in central Denmark, and he considers himself Danish. Why wouldn’t he? His father, Todd Bjorkstrand, grew up in Minnesota and played hockey at the University of Maine and in the U.S. minor leagues. The elder Bjorkstrand moved to play hockey in Denmark, met his wife Janne and settled down to help raise kids and coach. Oliver’s father still retains United States citizenship, and the Bjorkstrands have spent much time in the United States.

It wasn’t an easy decision for Bjorkstrand to leave Denmark to play in the U.S. for the Winterhawks. A lot of promising Denmark juniors play pro in Sweden, starting at age 18; in fact, Bjorkstrand played for his dad’s pro team at age 16. But, Oliver’s father felt his promising kid should play the tougher brand of hockey in North America to prepare to be professional.

Bjorkstrand, who speaks wonderful English and understands everything, says the fact that the Winterhawks picked him in the Import Draft helped make his decision for him.

“They talked to me during the (2011-12) season. I wasn’t 100 percent sure, but I’m happy about it,” he says. “For me, it was the right pick.”

He feels very comfortable in the U.S., but it took adjustment time, considering he lived in Portland from August 2012 to June 2013, before attending the NHL Draft and Columbus’ prospects camp. He returned to Denmark during summer 2013, nearly 12 months after he left.

Again, being the son of a U.S. citizen helps.

“I feel like I’m an American when I’m over here,” he says. “I’m more Danish, but I’m proud of being both, actually.”

Bjorkstrand has improved his game, including on the defensive end, although he continues to boast “a lean” frame that needs to be bulked up. He’s 6 feet, 170 pounds. To be a pro, he might need another 20 or 25 pounds.

Castron says he doesn’t fret about the weight of an 18-year-old junior player. Given time — say four or five years — what do you suppose Bjorkstrand will weigh?

“He’s getting bigger,” Castron says. “With a guy like him, it’s going to be the leg strength that’ll be the key. You see some NHL guys off the ice and they don’t strike you as big. It’s the legs and (butt). It’s amazing how strong the lower body is on some of these guys.

“I think (Oliver’s) strong on the puck and he’s fast, with quick hands and quick feet and quick head.”

A signed player, Bjorkstrand could, theoretically, make the Columbus roster for the 2014-15 season. If not, he’ll play another year of junior with Portland.

Castron says the Blue Jackets can wait for the young man to physically develop.

“It’s the maturity, more natural, getting stronger,” he says. “Every team has done it: You bring kids up, and they end up getting hurt. You want them to have a long career, why rush them?

“You hope your guys make it eventually, but there really is no rush. This league (WHL) is a great league with great coaching; (Portland) is a professional organization. He’s going to continue to develop here and when he’s ready ... there’s no rush. If he makes it at 23 and plays 10-12-15 years, he’ll have a lot more money than you and I can ever think of.”

Bjorkstrand agrees that he still has to develop.

“I’m kind of staying the same weight right now, and I want to gain more,” he says. “If I want to go to the next level, I gotta get stronger. When you go to the next level, everybody’s big.”

Bjorkstrand has enjoyed his time with Portland. The Winterhawks made the Memorial Cup tournament last year, and entered this weekend’s games riding a franchise-record 20-game winning streak. Yes, the Hawks are poised for another WHL title run.

Johnston predicted Bjorkstrand would be a 50-goal scorer for Portland. It could happen this season.

“He’s such a good player,” the coach says. “A deceptive, slippery skater. Smart, skilled, great shot. For a scrawny guy, he’s got a booming shot.”

Bjorkstrand says that he expected to be better this year, given another year of growth and setting his own “high expectations.” He ranks second to Petan in scoring on the star-studded Winterhawks. He would like to reach 100 points and, of course, 50 goals.

“But,” he says, “the team comes first, obviously.”