If Anders Bjork wants to work as the Bruins’ No. 2 left wing, his future employer would be happy to give him first dibs at the position. Last August, they offered the same opportunity to Jimmy Vesey. The Charlestown native signed with the Rangers after considering his hometown team’s pitch.
If Bjork accepts the invitation, he would be first in line to start 2017-18 as David Krejci’s left wing. The Bruins think highly of Bjork. Had he committed to pro hockey upon the conclusion of his junior season at Notre Dame, they would have considered giving him the green light to make his debut in the playoffs. It worked out well for Charlie McAvoy against Ottawa.
After being a point-per-game player as a sophomore, Bjork exploded in his third year of college hockey. In 39 games, the speedy left wing scored 21 goals and 31 assists. With Bjork filling nets and fellow junior Cal Petersen keeping them clear, Notre Dame advanced to the Frozen Four. The Fighting Irish lost to the University of Denver, the eventual champion. Such a pedigree would place Bjork ahead of second-line contenders such as Frank Vatrano, Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, and Peter Cehlarik.
But if Bjork declines the offer, it is not like he would have to consent to a consolation prize. He would be a senior at Notre Dame, the alma mater of his father Kirt and mother Patricia. Older sisters Brinya and Keali are also Notre Dame alums.
The left wing would be in line to graduate with his classmates with a business degree. He would be eligible to take a mid-winter leave of absence to play for Team USA in the 2018 Olympics. Upon his return from South Korea, Bjork would rejoin the Fighting Irish for the stretch run and perhaps compete for the championship that eluded him by two wins in April.
Either way, Bjork wins.
“For him and his family, it’s not just a career decision,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson. “It’s a life decision.”
Bjork is representing the Stars and Stripes, alongside teammates both current (Petersen) and possibly future (McAvoy), at the World Championship.
Upon the tournament’s conclusion, Bjork will inform Notre Dame and the Bruins whether he will return for his senior season or turn pro.
Petersen (23-12-5, 2.22 goals-against average, .926 save percentage) is in a similar position. He could sign with Buffalo, which drafted him in the fifth round in 2013. Or he could return to Notre Dame for his senior year.
“It would be the most talented team I’ve had in my time,” Jackson said, “if Anders and Cal came back.”
The 20-year-old Bjork is a Team USA veteran. Bjork won bronze in the 2016 World Junior Championship. He struck gold in the 2014 Under-18 World Championship. He played for the National Team Development Program alongside current NHLers such as Jack Eichel, Noah Hanifin, and Dylan Larkin. They are all teammates with Bjork again now at Worlds.
Bjork’s NHL buddies, however, are not eligible to play in the upcoming Winter Games. The NHL has said no to Olympic participation. Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who is also chairman of the NHL’s board of governors, reiterated the red light last Tuesday.
Bjork would face no such restrictions if he retains his amateur status. In that way, Bjork could have a season to remember: a chance to compete for Olympic gold, an NCAA title, and a Stanley Cup with the Bruins if they qualify for the postseason.
Such a future wasn’t always in Bjork’s cards. The Bruins selected Bjork in the fifth round in 2014. It is not the territory of sure things. Seth Griffith, the Bruins’ fifth-rounder in 2012, spent practically more time on waivers this season (Boston, Toronto, Florida) than in an NHL uniform.
But Bjork, who accelerated to enter Notre Dame as an 18-year-old freshman in 2014, has developed to the point where an AHL apprenticeship may not be necessary. He is a straight-line sprinter with wheels good enough to place him in dangerous positions with the puck.
“Anders has done a good job of making himself stronger in the weight room, and he’s done a better job at working at the parts of his game that needed to get better,” Jackson said of the 6-foot, 181-pound wing. “Understanding that he’s got great speed, he needs to be able to utilize it with the puck and without it. He’s grown as a player and he’s maturing as a young man.”
The Bruins want to sign Bjork to his entry-level contract so they can add his skills to their lineup. They also have no wish to see Bjork return to campus and get that much closer to Aug. 15, 2018. By that date, if he chooses not to sign with the Bruins, Bjork can expand his market by 30 teams. Vesey took this route by declining to sign with Nashville, who drafted him in the third round in 2012. Chicago would be among the teams interested in chasing Bjork, a Mequon, Wis., native.
There are more examples, however, of full-term collegians who stayed with their draft teams. Rob O’Gara completed four years at Yale before signing with the Bruins, who picked him in the fifth round in 2011. Jackson’s former players include Bryan Rust (Pittsburgh), Stephen Johns (Chicago), and T.J. Tynan (Columbus). They all turned pro with their draft teams after their senior years.
“I’ve never gotten any impression that he was anything but happy with the Bruins,” Jackson said when asked of Bjork’s right to reach free agency by not signing with Boston. “As far as I know, he’s very comfortable with the Bruins. I’ve not heard that or have any expectations that’s even on his radar.”
The World Championship wraps on May 21. After that, Bjork will make his decision. Parties in Boston and South Bend are anxious.
Bruins’ possible expansion plans
The Bruins are favoring the 7-3-1 format for the expansion draft. Some of this could change if general manager Don Sweeney engages Golden Knights counterpart George McPhee in trade talk.
“There’s going to be a lot of conversations I know that Don is going to have, whether it’s with other GMs or George McPhee, for the matter, on seeing what his appetite is and what his interest is,” said Bruins president Cam Neely. “But there’s always a fear that you’re going to lose a player that you may want to hang on to.”
Assuming the 7-3-1 model sticks, here are the players the Bruins are likely to protect and the minimum ones they’re likely to expose, along with their reasons for doing so:
■ Patrice Bergeron, forward. Duh.
■ Brad Marchand, forward. Duh again.
■ David Backes, forward. Owner of a no-movement clause. Would otherwise be a candidate to be left unprotected because of the term remaining on his contract.
■ David Krejci, forward. No-movement clause. The Bruins are locked into four more seasons at $7.25 million annually for a 31-year-old with a significant injury history. Krejci remains critical to their success, but not when he’s limping off as regularly as he does.
■ David Pastrnak, forward. No-brainer. On track to becoming one of the NHL’s most dangerous self-starting right wings.
■ Riley Nash, forward. Valuable, versatile forward and penalty killer. Can play all three positions. Has enough offensive touch to pinch hit as a second-line center when necessary. Well-liked teammate. Comes at a good price ($900,000 annually through 2018).
■ Ryan Spooner, forward. Not deserving of the raise he could get through arbitration. But also talented enough, despite his blemishes, to be used in a trade instead of given away to Vegas. Chicago might be interested in acquiring Spooner for futures because of how his strengths would match an offensive-minded system.
■ Zdeno Chara, defense. No-movement clause. Cap hit dips to $4 million because of the 40-and-over Kovalchuk Rule. Still the team’s best shutdown defenseman. Bruins need to add, not subtract, from the left side.
■ Torey Krug, defense. Terribly missed in the playoffs, where his puck-moving touch could have helped the Bruins advance through Ottawa’s 1-3-1 formation. Continues to improve as a three-zone defenseman.
■ Kevan Miller, defense. Tough call between Kevan and Colin Miller. But the former elevated his game in the playoffs to the point where the coaches couldn’t keep him on the bench. Kevan Miller is 29 and signed for three more seasons. Colin Miller, 24, has a higher offensive ceiling. But it’s clear which of the Millers has more of his coaches’ trust. Kevan Miller is an ideal third-pairing defenseman and penalty killer. Colin Miller’s decision-making still classifies him as a wild card.
■ Tuukka Rask, goal. Of course.
■ Matt Beleskey, forward (exposed). Unless the Golden Knights need help meeting their $43 million cap floor, it’s hard to see them taking on the left wing’s $3.8 million annual salary, which runs for three more years. Wasn’t particularly effective even before his knee injury. If Beleskey’s skating isn’t at a high level, the rest of his game is rendered irrelevant.
■ Jimmy Hayes, forward (exposed). Unlikely to be taken considering the drop-off in the Dorchester native’s game (2-3—5 in 58 games). Regularly chased the play. Bruins continue to regret dealing Reilly Smith for the ex-Boston College wing.
■ Adam McQuaid, defense (exposed). Hard to expose a veteran right-shot defenseman who played well in 2016-17 and proved he’s among the toughest players in the league (Matt Martin is still reeling). But the 30-year-old is reaching the career segment where players of his profile begin to decline. Given his style of play, McQuaid is always at risk of injury. In Vegas, the native of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, would join fellow PEIer Gerard Gallant and immediately become part of a leadership group.
■ Anton Khudobin, goalie (exposed). Bruins like how Khudobin recovered after the coaching change, especially in a critical road game against the Islanders.
But his spotty play before that forced them to ride Rask too hard. Not likely to be picked given the better goalies who might be available to Vegas (Marc-Andre Fleury, Jaroslav Halak, Semyon Varlamov).
Stickwork needs to be slashed
Referees Brad Meier and Brad Watson made the right call on Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen last Monday. Niskanen, who made Sidney Crosby eat his stick, was tagged with a five-minute cross-checking major and game misconduct. The Department of Player Safety also made the right decision by determining that Niskanen was not due for supplemental discipline. Although Crosby suffered a concussion on the play, Niskanen did not intend to injure the Pittsburgh captain when he delivered his stick to the face.
Where Meier and Watson fell short, as do most of their peers, is by letting most of the other stickwork slide. Crosby’s head dipped into Niskanen’s firing line partly because Alex Ovechkin hammered the center with a two-hander en route to the net.
Ovechkin’s slash was not called. Such plays rarely are.
As per the rule book, the standard for slashing is quite low. Rule 61.1 states that slashing “is the act of a player swinging his stick at an opponent, whether contact is made or not.”
The following sentence is where it gets gray: “Non-aggressive stick contact to the pant or front of the shin pads should not be penalized as slashing.”
In hockey, every time a player makes contact with an opponent with his stick, it can be considered aggressive. It is the nature of the sport. Players make these swings with the purpose of gaining the puck, slowing down an opponent, or preventing the next hockey play from taking place. As light as today’s sticks are, they can still do damage when swung by strong, angry men. Crosby knows this as well as anybody, having hacked off part of Marc Methot’s finger with a slash (uncalled, of course).
The solution is to call the rule book as it’s written: with zero tolerance for stickwork. This falls upon the referees. But it’s also on the GMs to instruct the referees to practice proper enforcement. The GMs are responsible for setting the mandate on what should and shouldn’t be called.
The league has important objectives: to protect its players, and to encourage freer and more offensive play. Eliminating ugly stickwork would be steps to ensure both.
Maple Leafs invest in Zaitsev
The Leafs only needed one season of NHL data to make a significant investment in Nikita Zaitsev. The right-shot defenseman scored a seven-year, $31.5 million extension last Tuesday after submitting a very good first NHL season: four goals, 32 assists, 22:10 average ice time in 82 appearances. Zaitsev isn’t really a rookie. He played in the KHL for seven seasons before signing with Toronto last May. But it’s not easy for a defenseman to adapt to the smaller rinks and nastier play of the NHL. Zaitsev handled the transition well, slotting in as a top-four defenseman on the baby-faced Toronto roster. The Leafs went big with term. But by doing so, they lowered Zaitsev’s average annual value to a threshold where he’s less expensive per year than right-shot comparables such as Zach Bogosian and Rasmus Ristolainen. Zaitsev can move the puck. But he can also take on shutdown shifts and give out as much punishment as he takes. “His tenacity, his pushback, his competitive level was higher than maybe I expected in watching him,” GM Lou Lamoriello said in a conference call. “Maybe that’s unfair to him because you don’t see him a lot prior to coming. You see him on film and live two or three times. But each and every night, he competes. That’s the thing that really stood out. Once he adjusts and gets more comfortable here, he’s even going to get better.”
Signing a breeze for Hurricanes
On Friday, Carolina GM Ron Francis reaped the rewards for cutting in line for the services of Scott Darling. The Hurricanes signed Darling, acquired from Chicago on April 28, to a four-year, $16.6 million contract. Darling, formerly Corey Crawford’s backup, would have been unrestricted on July 1. “Obviously Scott could have waited until July 1 to see what other options he might have as an unrestricted free agent,” Francis said in a statement. “But he believes in what we are trying to do here, and we are thrilled that he is committing to the Hurricanes and to Raleigh.” Darling will be an upgrade over Cam Ward and Eddie Lack. Darling went 18-5-5 with a 2.38 GAA and .924 save percentage in 2016-17, marking the third straight season he delivered quality backup goaltending for the Blackhawks. In that way, Darling could be following the trajectory of Martin Jones. The short-term Bruin went 4-5-2 with a 2.25 GAA and a .906 save percentage in 2014-15, his final season of serving as Jonathan Quick’s understudy in Los Angeles. After landing in San Jose, Jones, who was approaching restricted free agency, signed a three-year, $9 million contract. Jones went 37-23-4 with a 2.27 GAA and .918 save percentage in his first season as the Sharks’ ace.
Three ex-Leafs (Dave Bolland, David Clarkson, Mikhail Grabovski) and two current ones (Nathan Horton, Stephane Robidas) are among the 12 players who will be exempt from the expansion draft because of their career-ending injuries . . . Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have not enjoyed playing against Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler. Not many players do. McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins look like boy-band members next to the monstrous Ryans . . . Former Boston University center Nick Bonino is receiving calls from Hollywood. In Game 4 against the Capitals, Bonino jerked his head back after taking a slash from T.J. Oshie on the left shoulder. It was a wild stunt pulled by someone who certainly got jostled harder walking down Commonwealth Avenue.
Delay of claim
Sidney Crosby added yet another offensive honor in his 12th NHL season, becoming the 24th player in league history to lead the league in goals more than once. Crosby’s goal crowns came seven years apart, matching former Penguins teammate Mario Lemieux for the second-longest gap in league history.