Wennberg Watch

Jamie Squire

Thankfully we have some people in CBJ fan land that do wonderful reporting on the Blue Jackets prospects as well as future draft eligible players. Mike MacLean here at the Cannon and "CBJProspects" over at The Union Blue are probably the best, but there are many others that have been contributing to the CBJ prospect knowledge pool as well.

This year I am going to attempt to add a minor contribution of my own by trying to keep tabs on our latest Blue Jackets top pick of the 2013 draft (No.14), Alexander Wennberg. I am hoping to add a fanpost or fanshot here and there to chronicle his progress over the upcoming season and maybe some video highlights links as they become available. I will also try to include some information about the other Swedish CBJ prospects, like Daniel Zaar and Anton Forsberg, who both made a good impression when visiting Columbus for Development camp in the last couple of years.

Let’s start with Zaar. Daniel’s progression seemed to stall last year as he was bouncing back and forth between Rogle in the SEL (Swedish Elite League now called Swedish Hockey League or SHL) and the Junior team and never quite found his groove. This year Rogle is playing in Allsvenskan, second tier Swedish professional league (after relegation), and this should suit Zaar much better. In the first seven preseason games he has played in a top six role and tallied 4 goals, 4 assists and a plus-3 rating. This adds up to second best on the team and he has earned rave reviews from the team’s coach Dan Tangnes with a resulting increase in ice time. Zaar spent a lot of time building up his small frame this summer and tells Rogle’s official website it has paid off. "I feel much stronger with the puck and can hold on to it longer and then find a passing lane. This has a lot to do with my workout routine this summer…"

As an interesting side note Zaar is playing with William Nylander, son of former longtime NHLer Michael Nylander, who is also on the team. I am not sure how many father and son professional hockey combos there have been, but it must be pretty rare. William is currently ranked No. 3 on the first TSN Craig's list of the 2014 NHL draft, right behind Sam Reinhart and Aaron Ekblad, so I’ll keep an eye on his progress playing with Zaar. This kid is fast with incredible hands and reminds me very much of Patrick Kane the way he can hold onto the puck and stickhandle his way through the offensive zone. In some ways I suppose he is just a smaller, faster version of his father which is not such a bad thing. There are some scouts who think he has a real chance of going No. 1 next year, but I feel he needs a very good season with Rogle for that to happen. Regardless, he is a very talented young player.

Although William Nylander is now playing for Rogle, his rights are owned by MODO of the SHL. Playing for MODO, we find another CBJ prospect, Anton Forsberg (CBJ No. 188th overall pick in 2011), who is a somewhat overlooked, but still very interesting goalie prospect. Had it not been for current Blue Jackets goalie coach Ian Clark (and former European scout Kjell Larsson), who worked for MODO in 2011, Forsberg would never have been drafted by Columbus. The same can be said for the signing of Sergei Bobrovsky, so maybe Ian knows a thing or two about goaltending, which bodes well for Forsberg’s future. Anton is an all-around solid goalie with decent size, whose best attributes are his quick feet, ability to read plays and excellent work ethic. He had a very good season last year with Sodertalje (on loan by MODO) in Allsvenskan, posting a league second best .933 save percentage and 2.04 goals against, but having a more difficult time in the playoffs.

This year he is back with MODO of the SHL and playing alongside the likes of Samuel Pahlsson (yes, he went back to his roots) and competing for the starting position with Linus Ullmark. Forsberg has played in 4 preseason games so far, winning 3 of them with a save percentage of .963 and has looked very much like the No. 1 SHL goalie I think he will be. But preseason play without any pressure is one thing, while regular season games facing the likes of Alexander Wennberg is another.

Speaking of Wennberg; as some of you may know, he is slated to play this season for Frolunda in the SHL. After having a very successful season with Djurgarden last year with 32 points in 46 games (0.70 PPG) in Allsvenskan, it will be very interesting to see how he copes with the rigors of the SHL. The Copper & Blue website did an interesting points production comparable before the 2013 draft showing Wennberg in some pretty decent company and what we may expect from him in the future. Unfortunately there are no advanced stats available for the SHL, so I will have to rely on more traditional means of measuring his success or lack thereof.

The SHL is obviously a stronger league than Allsvenskan and if I average the currently available comparisons between the two leagues, it appears that a player from Allsvenskan should roughly produce 44 percent of his point totals in the SHL. This would equate to a PPG average of 0.31 for Wennberg this season, which doesn’t sound very impressive, especially considering that Elias Lindholm (No. 5 pick 2013) averaged 0.63 PPG in the SEL last year. Lindholm’s stats were however so good that he placed 4th all time for Swedish Elite League players in their draft eligibility year. The only three previous prospects with better stats were some guys named Sedin (times two) and Forsberg (Peter the Great).

The above mentioned projected SHL points per game average for Wennberg also doesn’t take into account the maturation and natural progression of a young talented player and that he will be surrounded by much better snipers. Averages are always brought down by grinders and those less talented than the top prospects, so I think it’s reasonable to assume that with decent ice time, Wennberg will produce in the 0.50 – 0.70 PPG range.

His development will also be aided by his new Frolunda coach, Roger Ronnberg, the former Swedish U20 Junior team coach. Ronnberg knows Wennberg’s abilities intimately and gave him many important assignments during the 2013 Junior Worlds. I can only speculate that having a coach who trusts him and knows how to develop young players will be a huge boost for Wennberg’s confidence and growth as a professional.

With that said it is unlikely that he plays on the first or second line, at least early on in the season, and his stats may suffer as a result. On the other hand, he will hopefully learn what it means to play the center position (although wing is still a possibility) at a high professional level and should be able to further his already impressive two-way player skill set. My prediction for Wennberg this year is that he will continue to make steady gains and there seems to be some preseason evidence that already points in this direction.

In early August, Wennberg was part of a strong U20 Sweden squad who won the Lake Placid tournament competing against teams like Canada and USA. He tallied 1 goal and 3 assists in 5 games and appears to be well on his way to play a major role for Sweden in the 2014 U20 Junior Worlds on home ice. Another player of note in the Lake Placid tournament was Andre Burakowsky (Washington’s 23rd pick in 2013) who led the Swedes in scoring and whom I predict will have a great season playing with Canadian phenom Connor McDavid on the Erie Otters team in the OHL. Hopefully this duo will give the Swedish CBJ prospect netminder Oscar Dansk a chance to catch his breath every now in an important bounce back season.

Frolunda is currently taking part in the European Trophy tournament, modeled on soccer’s Champions League, battling teams from all over Europe. Wennberg was not playing in the first few games (reason unknown), but in the last six games he has tallied 2 goals and 4 assists playing mostly on the third line and looing very dynamic in the only game I have been able to watch. His speed and excellent skating ability really sticks out but his hockey IQ is probably his greatest asset. Wennberg’s shot release also appears better than I remember and I found myself wishing he would shoot the puck more often. I should also mention that Marko Dano (CBJ’s No. 27 pick in 2013) has 1 assist in 6 games for HC Slovan Bratislava in the same tournament.

Wennberg has been paired with different players in Frolunda so far, most notably with Sebastian Collberg (Montreal’s 33rd pick in 2012), a skilled speedy winger that would seem to complement Wennberg’s playmaking prowess perfectly. Here are a couple of quotes from Frolunda’s latest win against SHL powerhouse Farjestad (Live reporting on European Trophy website). "Wennberg picks off a pass in (the) offensive zone, finds Collberg alone in front who dekes the goalie and puts it home! "The Swedish U20 team will have a nasty duo in Wennberg and Collberg, they find each other all over the offensive zone". I would personally love to see the two of them on the same line in the Junior Worlds and tearing up the SHL for a year or two before they head to the NHL. A couple other players of interest playing for Frolunda are Christian Backman (remember him?) and Joel Lundqvist, brother of King Henrik himself.

It seems that playing for Frolunda will be a great steppingstone for Alexander Wennberg and I for one will be watching. Good, bad and everything in between, I’ll try to relay my personal impressions of his first full season as Blue Jackets property and any other CBJ prospect related news from Sweden.

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