The summer of change in Columbus has hit many around the fanbase hard, a lot of that surrounding the trade that sent Oliver Bjorkstrand to the Seattle Kraken. This week, CBJ Twitter has been on fire with back and forth debate about who is the better player: Bjorkstrand or Patrik Laine. Ultimately, I think it’s unfair to compare the two players in any way other than relative value.
The only similarity between the two players, is that they are both shoot first players in the offensive zone. Anyone who has watched Bjorkstrand play in Columbus is well aware that his release is lethal. He gets the puck and doesn’t stickhandle or double clutch – he picks his spot and the puck is off of his stick in a hurry. Laine, on the other hand, has one of the best one-time shots in the entire world. Hard and accurate, and without any warning. I mean, just look at this thing:
But aside from their shooting abilities, they are vastly different players.
Bjorkstrand spent his young NHL career learning under John Tortorella, and was one of the last holdouts from the culture change that occurred in Columbus. I scouted him heavily in junior; watched him play close to a dozen times each season while he was in the Western Hockey League. He was always a scrappy player who would go into the tough areas for pucks. He always had the lethal shot and quick release.
Over time, and under the defensive minded coaching staff, he became a consistent defensive player, competitive in all three zones. I will never be an advanced stats guru, but if you’re going off of the eye test, Bjorkstrand is a standout player nearly every single shift he plays. He doesn’t have to score goals to be a difference maker.
Conversely, Laine does need to produce to be a difference maker. While he has a massive 6-foot-5, over 200 pound frame, he isn’t an imposing physical presence. Also, while he has improved his two-way effort, he’s still a subpar player in defensive situations. But, the reason Laine was kept on the team instead of Bjorkstrand is simple. His weapon is more powerful.
Even comparing their shots, there really isn’t much to compare. It’s like comparing apples with pineapples – the only thing they have in common is that they are both fruits containing the word “apple”. Bjorkstrand is a great shooter, but Laine has a shot that maybe only a handful of other players in the world have. His shot truly is one of the most deadly weapons in the NHL, comparable to names like Ovechkin, Stamkos, and Matthews. He could be a 50 goal scorer in this league, and he’s still only 24 years old.
We knew that changes were going to be made to this roster once the team signed Johnny Gaudreau in free agency. There are only four spots for wingers on the top two lines, and we had five players: Gaudreau, Laine, Bjorkstrand, Jakub Voracek, and Gustav Nyquist. While I’m sure the markets for Voracek and Nyquist were explored, I would hate to guess what the return would have been. Probably not as great as what the Canes gave up for Max Pacioretty … which was literally nothing. Meaning the Blue Jackets likely have to add to a trade to give up one of those two players.
Unfortunately, Bjorkstrand was the obvious trade candidate. His skillset is the most easily replaceable, he brought the best value in return, and there are guys already in the system who might be able to replace his production this season. I would argue that Yegor Chinakhov has a better wrist shot, and really plays his two-way game similarly to a young Bjorkstrand. Kirill Marchenko came over this summer, and I feel pretty confident that he can be a top-nine player for the team this season. This doesn’t even include the team’s top prospect – Kent Johnson – who is surely going to occupy a spot on one of the wings this fall.
In the end, you can’t let emotions get in the way of business. I love the player and I hate the trade just as much as anyone else. I watched Bjorkstrand play hockey for several years before he became a Blue Jacket. Ideally, I’m sure the team would love to have them both. I don’t think you can find anyone out there who wanted to trade him away. For as great a hockey player as he is, he’s an even better person. We will miss him for sure.
But, when you find one of these rare talents – the kind of player who can score 50 goals in the NHL – you can’t give them up to keep another player based on emotion. Patrik Laine, for all of his faults, is a first line player in this league because of his finishing ability. Oliver Bjorkstrand, for all of his good … simply is not. In a perfect world, he’s a second line player on a very good team. While it’s unfair to compare the two based on skill and style, if you have to choose one or the other … it’s Laine every time.