Anders Bjork has done well this year to prove he belongs in the NHL.
But as for a spot on the gameday lineup? Well, he hasn’t quite shown he should be there every day. And with the internal competition to play only ramping up for the Boston Bruins while the games get more physical, he’s going to have to display more than ever he deserves to play.
That’s a learning curve he’s navigating through at the moment, a bend he more or less started approaching in Tuesday’s loss to the Calgary Flames. Due to Charlie Coyle’s line with Bjork and Nick Ritchie having, as head coach Bruce Cassidy put it, “a rare off night,” the middle six got shaken up. Then during the second period of Thursday’s win over the Dallas Stars, Bjork was benched after getting bullied by one Stars skater after another.
That, coupled with an injury to Chris Wagner, prompted more line jumbling — though Bjork’s involvement increased again during the third period.
And at Bruins practice Friday, Bjork found himself splitting time with Joakim Nordstrom as the fourth line right wing, while Karson Kuhlman took Bjork’s usual spot on the third line. When the Bruins face the New York Islanders on Saturday, there’s a real chance Bjork is a healthy scratch.
As for Thursday’s benching, Cassidy after the game explained it was a teaching moment.
“Well, honestly, they got so scrambled up that ? with Anders it was a teaching moment,” Cassidy said, via a team-provided transcript. “Like, if you want to play in April and May, this is what you?re going to see every night for hopefully two months. You?re going to have to get used to it, you?re going to have to start playing — not start playing, but you can?t go back. They had a shift in our end and going back with the puck if you survived it is, you can call it a rookie mistake, but at the end of the day, this has been talked about before about going back with pucks. Sometimes you?ve got to live to fight another day and then a couple other plays, not getting it deep when there?s no other plays. So there?s things, you?ve just got to learn to manage the puck better in certain games like this. We discussed that, gave him a chance to work his way out of it in the third and we?ll look at it and see how it played out for him.”
Then he reiterated his message after Friday’s practice.
“It’ll probably play out that way (that we shuffle Kuhlman and Bjork regularly). (Anton) Blidh’s in the mix too,” Cassidy said. “With Anders, like last night that’s a great example of what he’s up against in the coming — if we make the playoffs, we have some success he’s going to see that type of hockey. So it was a bit of a learning curve for him last night. Kuhly’s been through it, Jake (DeBrusk’s) been through it, so they have a little more experience with that. That’s why I want to keep both (Bjork and Kuhlman) sort of going, and at the end of the day we’ll, hell we might do it right down to the end if we have to. But that’s kind of the plan right now. We’d like Anders to grow his game, and be able to play in those types of environments, and there’s no reason why he can’t.”
Not that it needs to be spelled out this clearly, but Cassidy is sending Bjork a clear message: Your spot on the 20-man gameday roster is not a guarantee.
Now that the trade deadline has passed, there isn’t a limit on how many players teams can carry on the roster, they only have to be cap compliant. And in moving out David Backes’ contract and saving some cash by swapping Danton Heinen for Ritchie, that shouldn’t be a problem. As a result, there will be multiple useful forwards getting healthy scratched down the stretch.
On any given night, Bjork, Kuhlman, Nordstrom, Par Lindholm, Blidh and maybe even Wagner essentially will be fighting for two spots in the bottom six. When Ondrej Kase came in, it made Kuhlman seem destined for healthy scratch duty. And though it’s not a surprise, suffice to say Cassidy isn’t married to just locking in the roster and not making changes. Think Cassidy is afraid to shuffle the bottom six so he can play, say, Blidh over Bjork? Think again.
Bjork should be commended for how he’s improved his defensive game. It’s made him a far more productive NHL player, and allowed his occasional offensive dry spells to be more forgivable. It was that well-roundness that made Heinen expendable. But one of the reasons Heinen is a Duck and Ritchie is a Bruin is because Ritchie’s a heavier player, and clearly the Bruins, to at least some degree, agree with the corner of the fanbase that posits a lack of toughness contributed to the St. Louis Blues sinking them in the Stanley Cup Final last season.
Bjork is not a fourth line player, so if he can’t lock down that third line spot it’s hard to envision him cracking the lineup. Maybe he does get some run on that unit, but that hardly seems like a long-term move.
The 24-year-old has shown an ability to respond positively to whatever direction or criticism is sent his way by the powers that be. It seems he’s taken feedback, specifically about his defensive game, from the coaching staff to heart, and worked to improve it instead of sulking. That’s why he’s played in 57 games this season with Boston.
So this is just the latest challenge he’s received, and with the postseason just over a month away, he’ll need to respond soon.