Following last year’s blockbuster trade of star center Ryan Johansen to the Nashville Predators in return for Seth Jones, the Columbus Blue Jackets faced the worrying possibility of playing the 2016-2017 season without a true first-line center. While Brandon Dubinsky and Boone Jenner both spent time playing in that center role, neither was truly suited to the task, leaving fans to question who exactly would fill that all-important vacancy. The drafting of Pierre-Luc Dubois in the 2016 NHL Draft seemed to indicate a long-term solution indicative of a rebuilding club, but provided no alleviation to concerns of immediacy.
Alexander Wennberg Proving His Worth for the Columbus Blue Jackets
Despite the concerns of fans and pundits, however, the coaching staff continued to talk up the young Swede Alexander Wennberg and his ability to fill the Johansen-shaped hole left on the top line. While Wennberg had certainly shown flashes of brilliance in previous years, his contributions were inconsistent and largely sub-par in comparison to the league-wide standards of a first-line center. In his first year, he contributed 20 points across 68 games played, a total which he doubled during the 2015-16 season despite the struggling club around him.
While his innate ability was undeniable, many fans saw him as a future star, rather than an immediate solution to the problem. His passing was crisp and incisive and his stickhandling was top notch, but he possessed an infuriating hesitance to shoot, both at even strength and on the powerplay, where newly-hired coach John Tortorella had given him more responsibility. He was not far from Johansen in that time period in advanced stats, posting a 53.79 on-ice Corsi-for mark per 60 minutes and 39.62 on-ice Fenwick-for rating per 60, each .23 and 1.95 from Johansen from 2014-2016. However, Wennberg needed to take the next step in order to reach his true potential, and in the 2016-17 season, he has.
Bigger Role, Better Contributions
Of the many players who have excelled under the direction of Tortorella, Wennberg has made perhaps the biggest leap of all. While Cam Atkinson has taken his previous consistency to new heights, Wennberg has found a new gear altogether. From the onset of the season, Tortorella made him a centerpiece of Columbus’ attack, both at even strength and on the man advantage, a fact that has bolstered his numbers beyond not only his own previous best, but into the top 15 centers in the entire league.
As of the All-Star break, Wennberg sits in 14th overall, tied with Claude Giroux and John Tavares at 40 points and tying last year’s totals in 21 fewer games. What’s more, he currently sits at 6th in the league among all skaters with 32 assists and has claimed the most powerplay assists in the league with 18. He has also improved his possession rating quite considerably, making the jump from around a 49% overall Corsi-for percentage last season to an astonishing 56% so far this year on a team that rounds out at 50% overall. His on-ice Corsi-for per 60 has coincidentally leaped to 57. Quite simply, Wennberg has made himself into an indispensable cog in the Blue Jackets’ machine, yielding great rewards for both him and the club as a whole.
Beyond the Numbers
Underlying these impressive statistics, Wennberg has improved his play drastically. While he had previously shown flashes of brilliance, he lacked the consistency to make it stick. This season, he has clearly been driven to become a better all around player, and the results are obvious. In addition to his repertoire of elite stick handling and passing, Wennberg has drastically improved the physicality of his game. His work on the forecheck and in the corners has resulted in 25 takeaways and innumerable zone keeps that have directly resulted in scoring chances, even if his name doesn’t directly show up in the assist column.
On the puck, he has learned to use his body and stick in unison, brushing off defenders easily and maintaining possession in a Thornton-esque show of strength that belies his relatively average size. Though his backchecking still needs a bit of improvement, his work rate is outstanding and rarely demonstrates a lack of effort. While Tortorella has shuffled the lines lately in search of chemistry and a return to early-season scoring, Wennberg has remained firmly in the top six, and has never fallen off of the top powerplay unit.
If this year is any indicator of the future, Wennberg seems the most likely candidate to fill the 1C role for years to come and may do so not as a volume scorer, but rather by embracing the playmaker role of a Giroux or Joe Thornton. With his current contract expiring at the end of this season, it’s yet to be seen whether his marked improvement and likely 70-point season will be a one-off or the beginning of something great. One thing for certain, however, is that for the moment, the 22-year old Swede is playing well beyond his years and has made himself indispensable to the immediate success of the Columbus Blue Jackets.