By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — If Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy decides to take rookie Anders Bjork out of the lineup Saturday, the Notre Dame product will be looking to follow his occasional linemate Jake DeBrusk’s model for handling being a healthy scratch.
After DeBrusk was scratched Nov. 11, DeBrusk responded with an assist in his next game and six points (two goals, four assists) in six games before leaving the lineup with an upper-body injury.
Bjork could use that type of response after having one point (a goal) in five games since he returned from missing seven games with an injury. Bjork played just 6:47 in the 5-3 loss to the Washington Capitals on Thursday and would be a likely candidate to sit out against the New York Rangers at TD Garden on Saturday with Ryan Spooner returning to the lineup and scheduled to be on the wing.
Cassidy lamented Bjork’s inability to be hard on the puck the past several games, including Thursday. Prior to Washington’s Jakub Vrana getting the first goal of the game, Bjork turned the puck over near the slot in the Capitals’ zone. Cassidy also didn’t like the way Bjork lost a battle after a Boston faceoff win at another stage of the game. The little plays added up and cost Bjork ice time, including the final nine minutes of the second period spent on the bench.
To his credit, the 21-year-old Bjork didn’t shy away from that criticism.
“I think that’s just mainly a confidence thing. I think I know how much strength and I have to use that and it’s on me if I don’t, I think,” Bjork said after an option practice at Warrior Ice Arena on Friday. “I think I just got to have that confidence every shift so I can avoid those mistakes.”
DeBrusk made a similar assessment of his play before and after he missed that game against the Maple Leafs. He’s looked more like the aggressive, hard-nosed player he was at the start of the season since getting forced to watch a game from the press box. After spending all of last season with Providence in the AHL, DeBrusk hasn’t been back.
Bjork, who left college early to join the Bruins this season, has never played in the AHL. How he responds to his possible removal from the lineup will determine if he can continue to avoid a little minor-league experience.
“He’s a young player and you don’t want players at that age to play sparingly and you don’t want them sitting out for any length of time,” Cassidy said. “So he has played sparingly, we’ve seen that, we can’t hide from that … so those are discussions we’ll have and decide what’s best for him and what’s best for the Boston Bruins. … So it’s tricky some days navigating through that. We’re probably at a spot where we’ll have to have that conversation.”
If Bjork bounces back, he and the Bruins will benefit. But the player and the team have to be careful to avoid making it seem like an assignment to the AHL would be a one-way ticket to No Man’s Land. There’s no doubt Bjork has the speed and skill to be an NHL force, but sometimes it takes young players time to understand the competitive aspect of the pro game. It took Danton Heinen and DeBrusk most of last season in the AHL to do that, and the NHL may not be the perfect testing ground for Bjork at this stage. The Bruins have to continue to accumulate points and the relatively healthy status of their roster affords them the opportunity to replace Bjork right now with a legitimate NHLer who’s not learning the ropes.
No one is saying Bjork would have to apprentice in the AHL as long as Heinen or DeBrusk did, but seeing what life is like down there, particularly when it comes to puck battles and physical play, wouldn’t be the worst thing for a kid less than a year removed from wearing a full cage and playing on weekends in college barns.
Cassidy could render this debate moot by sticking with Bjork on Saturday. And Bjork could flip a switch and get back to playing with the slight edge he had at the start of the season, either while staying in the lineup without missing a game or after a night off Saturday.
The only way things that could go off the tracks would be if the coach was to lose total faith in the player or the player was to reject the criticism. Cassidy doesn’t seem like the type of coach to give up on anyone, and 22 games into his pro career, Bjork seems humble enough to understand that whatever the Bruins do with him is for his own benefit at this stage of the game.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.