Blazing Bjorkstrand setting WHL on fire for Winterhawks

By Paul Danzer, Columbian Soccer, hockey and Community Sports Reporter

Published:

 

The Portland Winterhawks have had 32 import players from outside North America. In his third season, Oliver Bjorkstrand is the most productive import player in club history with 116 goals and 126 assists entering Friday's game at Seattle. Here are five of the best import Winterhawks before Bjorkstrand (and where they rank statistically among Winterhawks imports):

o Marian Hossa, Slovakia (1997-98): 45 goals (ninth), 40 assists (10th), 53 games (22nd). His one season with Portland produced a WHL and a Memorial Cup championship. Currently with the Chicago Blackhawks, Hossa is a five-time NHL All-Star and two-time Stanley Cup champion.

o Nino Niederreiter, Switzerland (2009-2012): 77 goals (fourth), 53 assists (ninth), 120 games (seventh). Currently with the Minnesota Wild in his third full NHL season.

o Richard Zednik, Slovakia (1994-1996): 79 goals (third), 88 assists (sixth), 126 games (eighth). Played 12 full NHL seasons with Washington, Montreal, Florida and N.Y. islanders.

o Marcel Hossa, Slovakia (1998-2001): 65 goals (sixth), 99 assists (third), 188 games (first). Played 237 NHL games over 7 seasons. Currently in Sweden's top league.

The Portland Winterhawks have had 32 import players from outside North America. In his third season, Oliver Bjorkstrand is the most productive import player in club history with 116 goals and 126 assists entering Friday’s game at Seattle. Here are five of the best import Winterhawks before Bjorkstrand (and where they rank statistically among Winterhawks imports):

o Marian Hossa, Slovakia (1997-98): 45 goals (ninth), 40 assists (10th), 53 games (22nd). His one season with Portland produced a WHL and a Memorial Cup championship. Currently with the Chicago Blackhawks, Hossa is a five-time NHL All-Star and two-time Stanley Cup champion.

o Nino Niederreiter, Switzerland (2009-2012): 77 goals (fourth), 53 assists (ninth), 120 games (seventh). Currently with the Minnesota Wild in his third full NHL season.

o Richard Zednik, Slovakia (1994-1996): 79 goals (third), 88 assists (sixth), 126 games (eighth). Played 12 full NHL seasons with Washington, Montreal, Florida and N.Y. islanders.

o Marcel Hossa, Slovakia (1998-2001): 65 goals (sixth), 99 assists (third), 188 games (first). Played 237 NHL games over 7 seasons. Currently in Sweden’s top league.

Oliver Bjorkstrand is playing at a level seldom seen in the Western Hockey League.

The 19-year-old from Denmark this week was honored as the WHL player of the week, the Canadian Hockey League player of the week, and the WHL player of the month for January.

Bjorkstrand totaled 30 points (14 goals, 16 assists) in 12 January games. He had two hat tricks and had a point in 10 of the 12 games he played in January.

“You’ve got to have lucky bounces and stuff go your way” to have a month like that, Bjorkstrand said.

Bjorkstrand is a big reason Portland is among the league’s hottest teams. After a slow start to the season, the Winterhawks won eight consecutive games before losing on Friday at Seattle.

Winterhawks coach and general manager Jamie Kompon said that having success in a prominent role for Denmark during the World Juniors tournament buoyed Bjorkstrand.

Bjorkstrand agreed.

“When you play against the best players in the world, every shift you have to skate hard or somebody’s going to beat you,” Bjorkstrand said. “In junior hockey you can get away with not going hard all the time. But coming back from the World Juniors, you’re used to going hard every shift.”

Not that Bjorkstrand is one to rest on success.

“Oliver is a very determined individual,” Kompon said. “People don’t realize how competitive he is and how hard he is on himself.”

Bjorkstrand said he gets irritated with himself when he isn’t contributing goals and assists because he feels he is letting down teammates.

“That’s a great trait for him to have,” Kompon said. “He wants to put pressure on himself to produce.”

Last season, his second with the Hawks, Bjorkstrand emerged as a high-end offensive player. After being drafted in 2013 by the Columbus Blue Jackets, Bjorkstrand produced 50 goals and 59 assists in the 2013-14 regular season He added 16 goals and 17 assists in last season’s playoffs.

Bjorkstrand is already the most prolific player from outside North America in Winterhawks history. His 116 goals and 126 assists are more than any other import player has scored for the club.

WHL teams can have two import players in their team, and the most successful Winterhawks teams have had dynamic players from abroad. Swedish defenseman Anton Cederholm from is in his second season with Portland.

Listed at 6-foot, 168 pounds, Bjorkstrand said he might have surprised opponents last season, but that’s not the case now. In 41 games this season, he has 36 goals and 35 assists, continuing to develop his all-around game.

“I want to be the best player on the ice all the time,” he said. “I would like to think I’ve gotten better and better, even during this season.”

Of course, Bjorkstrand isn’t a one-man threat. He benefits from being on a line with Nic Petan and Paul Bittner, who have also been playing at a very high level.

After helping Canada win the gold medal at the World Juniors, Petan had four goals and 14 assists in nine January games for Portland.

Bjorkstrand said that Petan and Bittner both are good at possessing the puck. Petan is excellent in tight spaces and Bittner’s size and strength puts pressure on defenses.

The top line’s ability to possess the puck is a big reason for its success, Kompon said. Plus, all three are willing to get to the front of the net and battle.

“If you’re going to be a goal scorer, you have to get to the net,” Bjorkstrand said. “I’ve always known you have to have the dirty goals to be successful.”

January was certainly successful. Bjorkstrand called the awards “exciting.” But what really has him smiling is the team’s success.

“I’m having so much fun right now,” he said.