Bruins Fans, Don’t Forget About Anders Bjork

Bjork_Tom Szczerbowski:USA Today SportsPhoto Credit: Tom Szczerbowski / USA Today Sports

By: Crae Messer   |   Follow Me On Twitter @Crae_Messer

Opening the 2017-2018 season, there was no doubt surrounding the future of the Boston Bruins. The youth movement was officially on, and the B’s faithful fanbase was excited to see what the young guns could do donning the Spoked-B.

The list of newcomers with serious potential seemed to be endless. Most notably there was Charlie McAvoy. Not far behind in terms of hype was Jake DeBrusk. Danton Heinen landed a well-deserved spot in the lineup as well. All of whom delivered in their first full seasons in the big leagues.

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Among the other younger players generating excitement were Sean Kuraly and Matt Grzelcyk. Brandon Carlo was back. David Pastrnak, still young, was ready to establish himself. And while all these players got their chances to shine in the Bruins’ impressive 2017-2018 campaign, one rookie, one with arguably the most potential coming into the season behind Charlie McAvoy, was robbed of his shot.

Anders Bjork

What Happened?

Bjork was injured in just his 30th game of the season, a 3-1 loss at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks on January 30, after taking a cross check from Francois Beauchemin. It resulted in season-ending shoulder surgery.

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Before the injury, Bjork was off to a good start in his first NHL season, as was expected. Bovada, a sports gambling website, had Bjork listed at 7/1 odds to win the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. He was tied with teammate McAvoy, and Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks for second-best odds. Clayton Keller of the Arizona Coyotes had the best odds at 9/2.

Bjork potted his first career NHL goal in his fourth career game against Keller’s ‘Yotes. Of course, Jake DeBrusk assisted on the goal. Two games later, Bjork scored twice in a 6-3 win over Brock Boeser and the Canucks. After that, Bjork’s production dropped off a bit. He went 13 games without another goal. His next tally, oddly enough, came against the Coyotes on December 7. That was his last goal before his season-ending injury took place. Bjork finished his first NHL season with four goals and eight assists, with a plus/minus rating of plus-2.

Even when Bjork was healthy, his production was less than impressive, and certainly not Calder Trophy-caliber. It undoubtedly takes time to adjust to the NHL when coming from the college ranks. But Bjork was one of the best in college, as is evident by his being named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award in his junior season at Notre Dame.

And while all this seems to imply that Bjork is not worth the hype, I’m here to make the exact opposite argument.

Bjork Belongs Here

There has been so much commotion since the Bruins’ season came to an end a few weeks ago, as is always the case with any team. If your team is one of the 30 that were unlucky enough to be eliminated, the first thing that happens upon elimination is that fans and management alike begin looking at how to improve the squad for the next season.

The B’s are no different. There have been plenty of questions and discussions surrounding the black and gold. What happens to Anton Khudobin? Who do they re-sign? Who do they let walk? Should they actually sign Ilya Kovalchuk? And, of course, who could forget the age-old debacle of how to improve the defensive corps?

Lost in all this conversation, specifically in regards to the Bruins’ offense, is Anders Bjork. Upon scrolling through the ever-dependable Twitterverse, I see so many analysts forgetting about Bjork when pitching hypothetical Bruins lines for next season.

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There’s little doubt the Bruins will break up arguably the best line in hockey of Patrice Bergeron between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. On the second line, David Krejci is most certainly the center. It’s fair to think Jake DeBrusk has earned his spot on the wing, and from there, the question marks begin to appear.

A lot of those question marks will move the side once some offseason transactions are completed, and we have a better idea of what the roster will look like next season. But while Bjork’s shortened rookie campaign was a bit disappointing, there’s no reason to disregard the fifth-round draft pick from 2014.

Bjork’s stock has indeed risen since being drafted. He was selected 146th overall, four years ago. Since then, he found a groove at Notre Dame and established himself as a natural goal-scorer. In his junior and final season, Bjork scored 21 goals with 31 assists in 39 games, averaging 1.3 points per game. Had he entered the NHL draft after having his best years at Notre Dame, you can bet he would have been taken a few rounds earlier.

Boston is a demanding sports city, and there’s no doubt about that. They expect winning teams and players that are ready to contribute to said teams. Mix that with a Bruins squad that relied so heavily on young players, and you’ve got some inexperienced hockey players taking a lot of responsibility in their first seasons.

Many of the young Bruins did a fantastic job handling such a tough situation, especially considering how well the team did last year. Charlie McAvoy took on a role as a leader among the younger players. Jake DeBrusk brought emotion, grit, and skill – just what Bruins fans love to see. Meanwhile, Anders Bjork struggled to find his footing in the NHL and fell by the wayside.

That being said, expect something big out of Bjork this year.

The 21-year-old forward is a natural goal-scorer. He combines his lethal shooting ability with outstanding puck-moving skill and vision on the ice. Take a look back at the numbers previously mentioned from his junior season at Notre Dame. He helped the Fighting Irish to an appearance in the National Semifinals, both with his play and his leadership as an assistant captain. When he pulls the Bruins’ sweater over his pads this year, he’ll be much more prepared.

It won’t come easily, however. Considering Bjork is coming back from a serious shoulder injury, he’ll have to bulk up even more than most. It will be so crucial for Bjork to get stronger on his feet and prepare for a more physical game. Otherwise, one strange hit could result in more damage to the already injured shoulder.

Remember David Pastrnak after his rookie year? After a first year where he impressed with his skills, but left fans worried about his ability to handle the physical aspects of the game, he did what he had to – bulked up. His second year, he was noticeably stronger on his feet, and it made a difference in his game. Bjork will need to follow in Pastrnak’s footsteps.

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There’s a reason Bjork entered his rookie campaign with the second-best odds to win the Calder Trophy. His knack for finding the back of the net. His puck-moving abilities. Heck, his leadership. It’s a great combination to see in a player, but one we didn’t see last year.

Next season, I’m confident we’ll see it.

What Bruins Fans Might Expect From Jake DeBrusk Moving Forward

debruskPhoto Credit: Getty Images

By: Crae Messer   |   Follow Me On Twitter @Crae_Messer

We all remember that moment so vividly. Round 1. Game 7. The opponent? The Toronto Maple Leafs.

The clock ticked toward the 14:30 mark of the third period and B’s forward Jake DeBrusk gathered a pass from teammate David Krejci along the right-hand side of his team’s blue line with a full head of steam. He looked up to see Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner in his face and shifted the puck to his backhand.

He entered the Toronto zone with virtually no angle to the goal on his off-wing, but that wasn’t about to stop him. He set the edge at about the face-off dot to Frederik Andersen’s glove-side, shifted the puck back to his forehand, and, well, you know the rest.

DeBrusk’s heroic effort was the difference-maker in a historic win for a Bruins team that most people never expected to be in the playoffs, let alone winning a series against Auston Matthews and company. And while DeBrusk’s second goal of the evening was undoubtedly one of the top highlights of the game, if not the season, what came immediately following gave us a sense of the type of player the B’s drafted with the 14th overall pick in 2015.

Following his typical emotion-filled celebration, DeBrusk led his linemates toward the Bruins’ bench. He grabbed the spoked-B on his chest and waved it like a flag – one he couldn’t be more proud to be wearing. If his two-goal performance in a Game 7 doesn’t get you excited for what’s to come, then that act of passion that followed most certainly should. But what does the Edmonton native’s future look like donning the black and gold? Let’s take a look at his first year in Boston.

DeBrusk’s First Go-Around

I sat in the stands for the B’s season-opener, when they came out of the gates firing on all cylinders to top Nashville, 4-3. It didn’t take long for the Bruins to find their groove, and the same went for DeBrusk. He scored his first of 16 regular season tallies. That first goal, by the way, was a backhand-to-forehand finish, much like his memorable Game 7 goal.

That’s also when we saw the first of his passionate goal celebrations. When that kid lights the lamp, his fervent celebrations light up the crowd in a way us modern NHL fans aren’t seeing much these days. That’s another discussion altogether.

In his first year in the big-leagues, DeBrusk, for the most part, lived up to his scouting report. He was labeled a big, goal-scoring winger, who wasn’t afraid to mix a bit of physicality into his game. Experts compared him to Columbus Blue Jackets forward Nick Foligno. Foligno entered the NHL in the 2007-2008 season and played 45 games. His first full season in the show came a year later when he put up 17 goals and 15 assists. Foligno and DeBrusk both stand in at 6 feet even, while Foligno has the edge in weight, listed on NHL.com at 202 pounds. DeBrusk is nine years younger than the seasoned vet Foligno, so he’s likely to put on weight over time, but is currently listed at 188 pounds.

This season, DeBrusk scored in back-to-back games three times. He registered nine multi-point games. He had just one multi-goal game, a 5-1 win over the Panthers on March 31 in which he added an assist. His longest goal-drought was an 11 game stretch from January 30 to February 20. He went six games without a point from October 15 to October 30. Aside from that, the youngster who secured a spot in the B’s lineup produced on a relatively consistent basis.

Looking Familiar

Strictly speaking in my personal opinion, DeBrusk reminds me, in some ways, of a former Bruin. One that departed not that long ago, and one that left an unforgettable impression on B’s fans on his way to helping the black and gold win their first Stanley Cup in 39 years. With a bit more skill and speed, and a bit less physicality, DeBrusk shows shades of Milan Lucic.

I know what many of you are probably thinking, and it’s that I’m wrong. But take a look at that kid’s aggression and passion out there. He gives his all when he’s on the ice. He’s not afraid to take a hit to make a play (refer to memorable Game 7 goal). He’s a fairly big kid with plenty of room to grow, and in time, could fill out to be a more skilled version of Lucic. Or, I could be dead wrong.

Looking at players that similar offensive production to that of DeBrusk this season provides an interesting perspective. One other player in the NHL put up the same offensive numbers as DeBrusk this season with 16 goals and 27 assists: Bryan Little. The Winnipeg center, coincidentally, measures in at 6-feet and 191 pounds.

Patrick Maroon, who split the year in Edmonton and New Jersey, posted 17 goals and 27 assists. Maroon’s a bit bigger than DeBrusk, but the points are similar. The main difference between DeBrusk and guys like Little and Maroon, who all posted similar offensive numbers, is that the latter two players are much farther along in their careers.

To get a potentially better idea of DeBrusk’s future production, a look at some of today’s veterans, and their offensive performances in the early stages of their career is important.

What’s Ahead?

Now, it’s key to state that these comparisons are in no way guarantees of the future. They’re simply an analysis of statistics put up by NHL players, and what it could mean for the future of Jake DeBrusk.

Claude Giroux – Philadelphia Flyers

Giroux_Tom Mihalek_APPhoto credit: Tom Mihalek/AP

This year, in his 11th season, the Flyers captain potted 34 goals with 68 helpers that landed him second in the points race with 102.

Giroux was eased into NHL play a bit more than DeBrusk was. He played just two games in 2007-2008. The next season, he scored nine goals with 18 assists in 42 games. It wasn’t until the 2009-2010 season that Giroux played a full year. His production back then looks familiar, scoring 16 goals with 31 assists.

Giroux comes in at 5-foot-11 and 188 pounds, so he’s a tad smaller than DeBrusk. But he’s physical with a great deal of strength, and he’s not easily knocked off the puck. He’s a more natural-scorer than DeBrusk at this point in the Bruins’ winger’s career, but again, he’s young. At just 21, DeBrusk has plenty of time to improve his shot and his stickhandling abilities. Even one offseason can make a difference.

Blake Wheeler – Winnipeg Jets

Wheeler_Bruce Fedyk_USA Today SportsPhoto credit: Bruce Fedyck/USA Today Sports

A familiar name, Blake Wheeler started his career in the NHL (and the Bruins) with very similar production to that of Jake DeBrusk in his first season.

Wheeler was drafted in 2004 by the Phoenix Coyotes. After playing a few more seasons of college puck, he opted out of his deal with Arizona and elected to sign with the Bruins. In 2008-2009, the right-hander buried 21 goals and 24 helpers in 81 games. The next year, he scored 18 times, adding 24 assists.

Wheeler then experienced a pair of down years, one in Boston and one in Atlanta, before finding his offensive rhythm once and for all in 2012. He hasn’t scored less than 40 points since then, including his 91 points (23 goals with 68 assists) this season.

While he’s a right-handed shot, and quite a bit bigger than DeBrusk, I believe the B’s new winger has the potential to improve to the point where he’s able to make space for himself the way Wheeler does. If so, that’s countless more scoring opportunities, which leads to more offensive production.

Jakub Voracek – Philadelphia Flyers

Voracek_Getty ImagesPhoto credit: Getty Images

If you don’t see shades of Voracek in DeBrusk’s game, then you might not be watching closely enough.

The left-shot right winger made his NHL debut in the 2008-2009 season and went on to play in 80 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets that year. He scored nine times with 29 assists that year.

His next few years looked like this:

Screen Shot 2018-06-10 at 10.50.45 PMPhoto courtesy of NHL.com

It wasn’t until the 2013-2014 season that Voracek started putting up top-notch numbers. This past season, the power forward scored 20 goals, adding 65 assists. DeBrusk tallied more points in his rookie season that Voracek did, but if the Bruins winger can produce in his second season, at the rate that Voracek did in his, then we’re in for a treat next year.

Aside from his scoring and playmaking abilities, Voracek brings something to the ice that you can’t teach: His presence. He’s a player that opposing teams take note of when he’s on the ice. There’s no doubt that Bruins management and coaching staff hopes for DeBrusk to have that same effect in the near future, but until then, it will be exciting to watch him grow.

Like I mentioned before, this in no way is a 100-percent guarantee that DeBrusk will eventually find himself in the top tier of NHL scorers. But there’s a pattern here. Take a look at the similarities between the way these guys play the game. DeBrusk fits the theme, and there’s a good chance he could find his way onto the Bruins’ top line in years to come.

Bruins Looking To Sign 2017 First-Rounder Vaakanainen

2017 NHL Draft - Round One(Photo credit: AP)

By Crae Messer | Follow me on Twitter @Crae_Messer

It looks like the Bruins will be looking to bring more youth talent to North America in the near future.

Mark Divver of The Providence Journal tweeted Thursday that the Bruins will be looking to sign the 18th overall pick from the 2017 draft, Urho Vaakanainen, sooner than later.

The 19-year-old left-shot defenseman played this season with Finnish squad SaiPa. His four goals and seven assists were enough to land him second on his team in scoring among defenseman. Additionally, Vaakanainen represented Finland in both the World Juniors and in a number of international contests. He tallied seven helpers in 32 games with the Finnish national team.

When the B’s called Vaakanainen’s name last June at the draft, even the draft-pick himself was surprised. He explained that his communication with Bruins management leading up to the draft was minimal, so to hear Don Sweeney select him was a bit of a shock.

Nonetheless, the B’s liked what they saw from Vaakanainen.

Where Does Urho Fit In?

Now, a few questions remain regarding the D-man’s future. First off, will the Bruins be able to sign him to an ELC before the development camp in June? More importantly, if a deal does get done, will Vaakanainen find a spot playing in North America?

The Bruins have several left-shot defensemen in the organization, most of whom played last season in Providence. Jakub Zboril, Jeremy Lauzon, and Emil Johansson all played their entire seasons in the AHL last year. Wiley Sherman played with Harvard until their season ended, then joined the baby B’s for their playoff run. All of whom fit the bill of a left-shot D-man.

As for the big leagues, we can’t forget about Matt Grzelcyk, who came out of his shell and then some to help the B’s to an appearance in the second round.

Not that Vaakanainen is guaranteed a spot with the big boys, but the question has to be asked: Where does he slide in?

In order to determine what role Vaakanainen would take, one would have to consider his style of play.

What Does He Bring To The Table?

Scouts were split on their reports of Vaakanainen heading into the draft. Some considered him a stay-at-home defenseman with minimal offensive abilities. Others, however, touted his two-way game and his ability to efficiently move the puck.

Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek was one of those describing Vaakanainen’s offensive abilities as limited.

“Shines on the defensive side of the puck at even strength and PK. Has an uncanny ability to get his stick in shooting and passing lanes,” Marek’s report read. “Just don’t expect offense. He won’t be out there late in a game to tie it up, but you’ll love him out there protecting a lead.”

From what I’ve seen, Vaakanainen isn’t one to create goal-scoring plays on a nightly basis, but his discipline and his hockey IQ make him an extremely valuable asset. He appears to have grown quite a bit in the last season since being drafted last June.

He does have a quick and powerful wrist shot that, from the blue line, could create scoring chances with traffic in front of opposing goalies.

I’m of the belief that, should the Bruins get a deal done with the Finnish national, he could show his value in Providence in no time. Neither Vaakanainen nor any of the other previously stated left-handed D-men are up to the level of somebody like Charlie McAvoy, but that’s a lofty comparison.

However, the competition between a handful of young defenseman could do each of them wonders. Who knows if any of them could work their way into a spot with the big boys next season.