Anders Bjork begins Sabres career like a player with something to prove

In his last five games with the Bruins, Anders Bjork didn’t play.

It was clear his time in Boston was coming to an end. This had been a pattern for young, skilled Bruins forwards who didn’t pan out in their system; Frank Vatrano was sent to the Panthers in 2018, and then Ryan Donato was sent to Minnesota in 2019, and Danton Heinen moved on last year.

There’s a longer history, going back to Blake Wheeler to then-Atlanta in 2011, but under the Bruce Cassidy/Don Sweeney Bruins, there’s plenty of their own examples.

The 24-year-old Bjork was one of the pieces sent to Buffalo in the Taylor Hall trade, along with a second round draft pick. His first game with the Sabres came in the building he just spent a lot of time watching the Bruins in.

He picked up an assist on Buffalo’s opening goal that night. In his second game, though, a 5-2 win over the Capitals, he broke out like a player who has something to prove.

“It takes some pressure off for sure,” Bjork said afterward. “It’s going to take a couple games for me to find my stride and figure out how I can best play in this system. The coaches have done a great job already showing me video.”

His 18:40 time on ice on Thursday night was the most he had played since November 8, 2017 when he skated for 18:46 with the Bruins. Minutes had been tough to come by and the leash was short. He averaged 12:30 of ice time in 138 regular season games in his Bruins career.

Bjork had plenty of frustrating moments with Boston. He dealt with two shoulder surgeries that were the result of playing on his off wing. He didn’t get to be at the Winter Classic at his alma mater Notre Dame after being sent to Providence and dealing with his second shoulder injury.

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He did as the Bruins asked, improving his defensive game and playing out of his natural position often, but the offense never came, if he even had a chance to find consistency on any line.

He left Notre Dame after three seasons as one of the best scorers in the nation. That offensive touch never became a consistent scoring threat with the Bruins as he recovered from injuries and fought for his spot.

That wasn’t going to come in Boston; he finished his Bruins season with the third-fewest offensive-zone starts at five-on-five among Bruins forwards who played in at least 20 games this season.

“There’s opportunity. It’s a fresh start for me,” he said after he got traded. “I don’t think my time in the NHL has gone the way I wanted it, but this is a great opportunity for me to start over and begin working even harder to become the player I believe I can be.”

With Buffalo, there’s certainly a lot more room for him to find out what kind of an NHL player he can be. Thursday night was proof of that, with the amount of time he saw. His goal chased Washington goalie Vitek Vanecek, which had to add to his confidence during the offensive onslaught.

It seems like Don Granato is giving him room to expand that confidence, too.

“He’s very encouraging with his teaching,” Bjork said. “Guys really respond well to it. The guys kind of told me when I came here, ‘we’re a lot different of a team right now, we’re transitioning quick, playing hard, making a lot of plays.’ Huge credit to him, I think he’s taught these guys well.”

It’s certainly a different experience than being with a team that went to a Stanley Cup during his time, but it’s also different in the sense he can develop without restrictions. In Buffalo they’re not going to move him from fourth line minutes one night to first the next, and he’s not going to be changing wings if he has a couple of off nights, and he’s certainly not going to sit out five games in a row.

“He plays a very high speed, high-tempo game,” Granato said the day after the trade. “He has a lot of skill. And as far as expectations for him, we need to get him to settle into what we’re doing, and that’s going to take a little bit of time. On the coaching side, as always, we’re looking to speed that process.”

Bjork became the latest young Bruins forward who didn’t fit in their plans. Perhaps he’ll be the next one to carve out an NHL career with a different team.

“I’ve had injuries, which has kept me out of the lineup, and struggled to get back in at times. [I] haven’t really established myself, I think,” Bjork said the day after he was traded. “I’ve played a handful of games, but I haven’t become the player, — I don’t think I have my identity set yet. That’s something that excites me, I’m looking forward to establishing that and building my game.”

Marisa Ingemi is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Ingemi.

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