USA Hockey does not invite stiffs to the National Team Development Program. In 2013-14, some of America’s brightest teenagers dressed for the Under-18 team: Dylan Larkin, Sonny Milano, Alex Tuch, Jack Eichel, and Noah Hanifin, all future first-round NHL picks. Anders Bjork was right there next to the wunderkinds.
Teenagers being what they are, they cannot help but measure their place by comparing themselves with their peers. So in June of 2014, when a parade of his friends approached the Wells Fargo Center podium in Philadelphia to shake hands with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Bjork wondered why 145 names were called before he heard his own in the fifth round.
“It’s tough,” Bjork said. “It’s tough seeing my friends and other guys getting picked before me and players I played against.
“I was a little bummed at first. But my family and friends were very supportive. My dad, especially. He told me, ‘This should drive you. You see the guys picked earlier than you? You can be as good as them.’ ”
On Thursday at TD Garden, the son of ex-pro player Kirt Bjork will skate on the Bruins’ first line in the season opener against the Nashville Predators.
The fate of the 2017-18 Bruins is very much in the hands of the speedy 21-year-old who turned pro instead of returning to Notre Dame.
If he plays to his employers’ projections, the right wing could be part of one of the league’s best lines alongside Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. Opponents would have to deploy their top players against that line. It would leave more room for Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci, and David Pastrnak to create offense against lesser players.
If Bjork experiences rookie hiccups, coach Bruce Cassidy will have to consider alternatives — promoting Pastrnak, moving up David Backes, giving Frank Vatrano an opportunity — that could compromise the lineup.
Expectations are appropriately high for a player with Bjork’s skill set. He shares attributes with Jonathan Drouin. Both skate at a furious tempo. They are clever with the puck. They do not need much time to find openings and tuck pucks home.
The difference is that Drouin went third overall in 2013 after Nathan MacKinnon and Aleksander Barkov. Bjork had to wait much longer.
“Back when he was drafted, he was in the development program and really playing in a third-line role,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said. “Not really playing with the upper-echelon players or penalty-killing and power-play situations. You’ve really seen him evolve over the course of time.”
Not many players of Bjork’s draft pedigree proceed to make NHL impacts. Forty-one former fifth-round picks populate opening-day NHL rosters. Of this cluster, Jamie Benn is the most high-profile player. Others, like fellow Black-and-Gold prospect Sean Kuraly, exhibit more modest characteristics as depth players, grinders, and projects.
Bjork didn’t play to his potential during his draft year, but found ways to reach it in the following seasons. For whatever reason, the speed and skill that have always been his companions did not make Bjork an impact player for the NTDP in 2013-14.
“I had a lot to learn,” Bjork said. “I was young. I had to grow a lot strength-wise. I think I did all right. But I had a long way to go to get to the pro level.”
For NHL teams, the benefit of drafting future collegians is the extra time for development. Had Bjork been playing major junior, the Bruins would have had only two years before having to sign the wing.
Under coach Jeff Jackson at Notre Dame, Bjork had three years to grow into his body, learn how to play away from the puck, and touch the game in ways other than scoring. He had only 7 goals and 15 assists in 41 games as a freshman.
In hindsight, it was a springboard season for Bjork to transition from the NTDP to college hockey and start figuring out how he could justify the Bruins’ selection.
Two years later, Bjork exploded for 52 points in 39 games as a junior. He could have gone back to school to complete his NCAA career, earn his degree, and still be free to sign with the Bruins. But his draft team would then have run the risk of being without Bjork this season — and perhaps for good. Had Bjork waited until Aug. 15, 2018, he could have become a free agent and signed with anybody.
“Last year, taking an enormous leap offensively and playing with a tremendous amount of confidence and speed, going to the World Championships and acclimating himself there, we sat down and had long discussions about what he felt,” Sweeney said.
“He felt he was ready to take the next step and play against the best players. I think the results have been pretty good so far, and hopefully they continue.
“It’s hard to jump into this league, but he’s playing with two pretty good players. Hopefully we can take advantage of the skills he brings to the table.”
Bjork is now teammates with Pastrnak, selected four rounds earlier in 2014. Second-rounder Ryan Donato is a Harvard junior. Bjork beat out Danton Heinen, the Bruins’ fourth-round pick.
Tuch, his ex-NTDP teammate, did not make the Golden Knights’ roster. Milano is trying to gain traction in Columbus’s system.
Bjork has come far from the 18-year-old who watched the 2014 draft on TV and fretted about whether he’d be picked at all.
“I’ve used that as inspiration to work hard and find whatever way I can to be a better hockey player and a better person too,” Bjork said. “Overall, it was a positive in my life.”