On Wednesday the Pittsburgh Penguins prospects pool added some depth as the team signed perhaps their top prospect, or at least their most NHL ready prospect, Providence College forward Kasper Bjorkqvist to a two-year entry-level contract. Thursday, Pittsburgh Hockey Now spoke with Providence head coach Nate Leaman who helmed the Providence Friars to a Frozen Four appearance this season and has coached Bjorkqvist for each of the player’s three seasons.
The Penguins lured the 2016 second-round pick (61st overall) away from Providence before his senior season with the contract offer but the coach fully supported Bjorkqvist’s decision.
“We talked about all of the pros and cons. At the end of the day, when he called and told me, I think it was the right decision,” Leaman beamed.
One thing was immediately apparent when speaking with Leaman. He likes Bjorkqvist the player and the person. Last summer, Leaman was honest with PHN about what Bjorkqvist needed to improve to reach his potential and his professional dreams. This conversation was a bit different as Leaman dished high praise.
“I believe Kasper is ready. He has had a very solid three years at Providence developing his game, winning and being a leader,” Leaman said. “He spent a lot of time this past year working on his game, developing his play on the rush–he got stronger on his skates. Those are two things he wanted to get better at, and he did.”
Bjorkqvist, 21, captained the Providence Friars and also led them to the Frozen Four. The knock on the 6-foot-1 Bjorkqvist was his skating. Last summer, multiple observers told PHN Bjorkqvist’s skating was not professional ready. However, those fears appear to have gone away. Bjorkqvist was frequently at the rink well before practice and often after working on that issue.
His ability to play on the rush this season is both an outgrowth of the player’s desire to add another layer to his game and his increased speed.
“Kasper has always had a great understating of the game, and he knows his strengths well,” Leaman said. “He is very good along the walls, at the net fronts, and on the penalty kill. All of those translate very well to the next level.”
In the past, some projections compared Bjorkqvist to Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist. Those similarities were only strengthened over the past season. Like Hornqvist, Bjorkqvist hits the gym with a vengeance. He is physically ready to play professional hockey. Initially, Providence listed the Espoo Finland native at 198 pounds. However, this season Providence listed him as 6-foot-1, 207 pounds.
That’s probably nine pounds of muscle.
Bjorkqvist improved in each season at Providence and set career scoring highs each season. In his freshman year, he popped only nine points (3g, 6a) in 30 games. By his sophomore season, he scored 16 goals and 23 points in 40 games. This season, he upped his totals again with 17 goals and 13 assists in 42 games.
Bjorkqvist could get a look at the NHL next season as the Penguins currently have a couple of open slots for down-line forwards with the potential retirement of Matt Cullen and free agency of Garrett Wilson. There will be a need for youth, aggression, and a player willing to drive to the net.
“We were very happy with the steady progression in Kasper’s production,” Penguins assistant Bill Guerin said in the Penguins press release. “I know Kasper expected that improvement in his personal numbers each season. He is also a very disciplined hockey player who plays a very team-oriented game.
Based on recent history, the Penguins will season their prospect with at least some time in the AHL, just as they did with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust. Though Bjorkqvists grinding game could lend itself to the Penguins third or fourth line needs.
Leaman wouldn’t bet against it. It was unsaid, but there was little doubt he believes he will see his player in an NHL sweater, soon.