It took all of 52 seconds for Anders Bjork to make his presence felt Thursday.
After he and his fourth-line compadres started the game with an energetic shift, he was still on the ice after a partial line change and took a hit near the right half-wall from Pittsburgh defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph to make a play.
Patrice Bergeron got a scoring chance and drew a penalty. Bjork had capped the first of many high-tempo shifts by his line with a little extra contribution to the Bruins’ cause in a game they went on to win 4-1 at TD Garden.
That was a telling moment for the type of game Bjork was about to have and what he might be able to do in the not-so-distant future.
In an ideal world, Bjork would be regularly filling in for the injured David Pastrnak on Boston’s top line with Bergeron and Brad Marchand. But after a couple games of Bjork playing in the Bruins’ top six to start the season, coach Bruce Cassidy saw he needed more from the right wing on that line and went with Jake DeBrusk. When DeBrusk was injured, Craig Smith, and then Charlie Coyle got the dream promotions. Jack Studnicka and Nick Ritchie have received second-line ice time while Ondrej Kase has been out.
Bjork has been kept on the fourth line with Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner, giving that line even more speed than it had in the past with Joakim Nordstrom filling the left wing. On some teams, that’s a demotion. When it comes to the Bruins, it means nearly as much defensive responsibility as playing on Bergeron’s line, and an expectation that there’ll be some offensive contribution.
Well, Bjork got an assist on a Kuraly’s goal when the left wing’s shot went in off the center’s right leg. And the entire fourth line was on the ice when Wagner scored the first goal of the game. At the other end of the rink, Bjork, Kuraly and Wagner, along with the defense pair of Jeremy Lauzon and Charlie McAvoy, basically played the line of Evgeni Malkin centering Jason Zucker and Kasperi Kapanen — the Penguins’ second line — to a stalemate in shot attempts 5-on-5.
“… it was good, I mean we made some good plays, I think in weird ways you get paid off that for,” Bjork said.
As a 2014 draft pick (fifth round, 146th overall) and a guy that stuck it out at Notre Dame for three years, Bjork seems like he’s been around forever. But he’s just 24 and two major shoulder surgeries cost him basically two whole seasons of his pro career. He’s still finding out where he fits in the NHL. He had 19 points (nine goals, 10 assists) in the regular season last season, but then had just one assist in 10 playoff games.
Luckily the Bruins have enough depth that they don’t have to force feed him major minutes, and they don’t have to give up on him. In fact, they locked him up for three years in July — albeit for the very team-friendly average annual value of $1.6 million.
A long-term contract gives Bjork and the Bruins a chance to see what his role will become. There’s always been top-six potential in him, and maybe DeBrusk-level production will come and make him a multi-millionaire in Boston or elsewhere. Or perhaps his speed and shot will be best suited as a bottom-six player that can fill in in the top six when necessary. He can still chip in on the penalty kill and perhaps at least on the second power play. There’s no shame in that.
Whatever the future holds, there’s probably no better place to learn what he can do and sharpen his all-around game than on a line with Kuraly and Wagner. And his talents can help those guys boost their numbers, even though we know those guys are hardly judged on their production.
“I think we’ve been working to try to find that exact mix,” Kuraly said. “But Bjorky’s got a lot of skills and he’s got a ton of speed, so for both of us it’s been a little bit of a change. But I think we knew that if we could get it figured out, it would work well. And I think we’re getting closer. So that’s a great sign.
“And Bjorky played great tonight. He skated. I think he was the big driver of our line tonight, so it was awesome to see. Great guy to play with, he can finish and hopefully, tonight’s just the start.”
The impressive game against the Penguins could be the start of Bjork’s ascension to a top-six role, maybe on David Krejci’s line because Pastrnak’s on the verge of returning to his rightful spot at the top of the right-wing depth chart. Or maybe the Bruins, with Bjork next to Kuraly and Wagner, wind up having one of the best fourth lines in the NHL again all season.
If Bjork continues to play the way he did Thursday, instead of being cast off as a player that never found his spot, he could wind up a guy that fills many spots for the Bruins this season and beyond, providing them with championship-caliber depth.