Wennberg Watch - Steady Gains

With the recent announcement of the preliminary Swedish U20 Junior Worlds Roster, I thought it would be appropriate to post an update on Alexander Wennberg and some of the other CBJ prospects in Sweden. For those of you who have followed the excellent fanposts about Wennberg, courtesy of will.harding.509 and the subsequent commenting, you will already have a good idea of his first SHL season, so please forgive me if I repeat some information.

With that said, let's examine the Sweden U20 JWC roster and where the Blue Jackets prospects fit (or don't fit) into the team that is expected to win back gold on home ice in January of 2014 in Malmo, Sweden. The fact that Wennberg made the team is clearly no surprise. He was the highest drafted Swede available from the 2013 NHL entry draft (Elias Lindholm will most likely not be released by the Carolina Hurricanes) and he has been a consistent contributor for the Swedish Junior program over the last few years.

Most recently he tallied 1 goal and 1 assist in 3 games, with a plus-4 rating in the 4 Nations tournament in Novogorsk, Russia in the early part of November, with Sweden beating Russia and the Czech Republic and losing to Finland in a shootout. Sweden, winning the tournament, thus ended a very strong U20 year with a Silver at the JWC (bested only by the US) and a couple of solid tournament victories in the summer and fall. Wennberg is generally relied upon as center to play big minutes in all situations and his solid two-way play, speed and hockey sense makes it difficult for the opposing team no matter the circumstance. He is no doubt the prime candidate for the No. 1 center position for Sweden in the JWC and may end up having some very familiar linemates as I intend to examine shortly.

But first, let's take a look at what Wennberg has accomplished playing for Frolunda this season. At the time of the last Wennberg Watch, Alex had just finished a very strong preseason skating on the third and fourth lines in the right wing position. Since then, and just barely past the half season mark, he has been elevated to regularly playing on the first line (still as right wing) and has steadily increased his TOI to an average of 15:38, which is very good considering he is a rookie. Playing for his former U20 coach Roger Ronnberg has made his transition to Frolunda smooth and he continues to receive more important assignments as he is proving to the coaching staff that he can manage the workload. I am fully expecting that his TOI average will continue to rise in the second half of the season.

Wennberg's season started off with a bang as he scored a goal in each of his first two games. Unfortunately he proceeded to go pointless in the next six before posting 4 points over the next 4 games. The he went another 8 games without a point, but has since rallied with 7 points in his last 9 appearances. However, the inconsistency in production has not been mirrored in effort and because Alex is such a solid two-way player, he is never a liability for his team. Frolunda has the youngest roster in the SHL and they started off rather shaky, sitting near the bottom of the table for the first ten games or so. Since then, they have surged to second place and appear to be the only team that can seriously threaten last year's SHL winners Skelleftea.

Wennberg currently sits at 13 points (11 goals!), in 29 games for a 0.45 PPG average, which is tied for 5th on the team in total points and second in goals. This roughly equates to 1.73 points per 60 minutes, which is very solid for a 19 year old playing in the SHL, a league considered slightly better than the AHL. His points totals may not sound that impressive for those who follow Canadian Juniors (with massively inflated points totals), but you have to keep in mind that the level of competition is much higher and that assists are not nearly as easy to come by in European hockey. Second assists are actually pretty uncommon over there, while unassisted goals are commonplace.

I should also mention that I calculated (in my previous Wennberg Watch Fanpost) that his Allsvenskan (Swedish second tier league) totals from last season roughly equals 0.31 PPG in the SHL, which he is now eclipsing by a healthy margin. I was even hoping for a little more, but admittedly my prediction was somewhat inflated. The one thing that appears a little bit odd is that Wennberg has only tallied a couple of assists, but a rather high number of goals. Especially since this doesn't really match his past, where his assists have always been higher than his goals. I am guessing that this is a fluke, but it may also have something to do with the fact that he has mostly played on the wing, having had less opportunity to distribute the puck. Alex is a very creative passer so it should only be a mater of time before his assists catch up to his goals numbers.

It is not easy to project Wennberg's future NHL career based on the first half of his rookie SHL season, but he has definitely held his own so far. I'm not sure that the Backstrom comparison is entirely fair although Wennberg himself has made that connection in terms of player type. To me, Wennberg projects as a solid 2nd line NHL center who may have an outside chance of becoming a No.1 center. At worst, I think he is a very skilled third line center along the lines of Anisimov. My prediction for the 2014-2015 season is that he stays in Sweden for one more year of seasoning, but playing for Springfield is also a possibility. I'll be watching closely to see how he develops in the SHL and what kind of World Juniors he ends up having.

Speaking of the JWC, let's take a closer look at the preliminary Swedish roster. Wennberg is not the only Frolunda player, as no less than 5 players from the Gothenburg club were invited. There is some speculation that the first line will be entirely made up of Frolunda players, with Wennberg centering Sebastian Collberg, who has struggled somewhat this year, and Andreas Johnson, who is having a spectacular year for Frolunda. Johnson has been the best rookie in the SHL bar none, which should make the Toronto management very happy having selected him with the No.202 pick in the 2013 draft.

Another interesting Frolunda invite is Anton Karlsson (the only 1996 birthdate), who projects as a top ten draft pick next year. Anton is a good size winger who plays a skilled power forward game with good hockey sense and a winning attitude. This is a very promising prospect who would perfectly fit the mold of a CBJ player, but I sincerely hope that the Jackets are not picking that high in 2014. He currently plays with Jackets' commodity, Markus Soberg of Norway, for the Frolunda Junior team. Markus has had a bit of a breakout season with 9 goals and 6 assists in 15 games, which puts him in second place in team scoring. He was a 6th round pick in 2013 and might easily be overlooked, but I feel that he possesses big time upside with excellent hands to go along with his blazing speed. He has a great deal of maturation to do physically and his defensive game is a work in progress, but wherever he has played he has managed to impress. Skillwise he may be the best player to come out of Norway since Espen Knudsen, for what that's worth.

In goal, Oscar Dansk will be expected to start for the Swedes, after having a bounce back season with the Erie Otters with a .916 SV% and 2.25 GAA. I wonder how Dansk copes with the pressures of backstopping the JWC home team, but a stout Swedish defense should help him out as usual. If he could stomach playing against the Pittsburgh Penguins in a preseason game, he should manage facing his peers, albeit on the biggest stage of all.

Two very notable omissions from the Swedish JWC team were Daniel Zaar (CBJ prospect) and projected top five 2014 draft pick William Nylander. William is probably the most offensively gifted Swedish forward prospect since Nicklas Backstrom, but his season with Rogle has not been as successful as many believed. Despite being pegged as a top team Rogle has struggled and management fired head coach Dan Tangnes, who had a very ugly and public fallout with William's father Michael Nylander. William tallied 9 points in 19 games with Rogle before he was sent back to MODO of the SHL where he has registered 2 points in 9 games. The high level of talent is unquestionable, but Nylander's small size and a lack of defensive play has him falling in the draft rankings and I would be weary of drafting him for those very reasons.

Daniel Zaar should be extremly disappointed with not making the JWC team. Not only did he grow up very close to where the tournament will take place, but he has played pretty well for the Swedish Junior team as of late. With Rogle he has managed 8 goals and 7 assists in 28 games, while lacking consistency. His ice time started out around 20 minutes per game, then dipping as low as 8 minutes and has slowly climbed back to around 17 minutes. Zaar impressed many Jackets fans a couple of years back in Camp and has been touted as a potential future NHL sniper. His shot is excellent and his skating and passing is above average as well. Unfortunately his diminutive stature and lack of getting to the dirty areas is working against him, so overall I would say his future as a Blue Jacket looks dim. If he can continue to gain physical strength, there is an outside chance that he will see time in the NHL, but with guys like Wennberg, Rychel, Dano and Bjorkstrand in the fold, the odds are starting to stack up against him.

On a more positive note, Anton Forsberg (CBJ goalie prospect) of MODO, is having an excellent season. His save percentage of .919 ranks him 8th in the SHL and his 2.46 GAA is nothing to sneeze at either. The only problem is that Linus Ullmark, the goalie he is battling for the No.1 spot, has been even better. Ullmark's save percentage of .938 is currently No. 1 in the SHL and his 1.87 GAA has helped to keep MODO battling for a playoff despite not scoring many goals. Fortunately for Forsberg, MODO has continued to give the two young netminders equal playing time, with two games on / two games off. For Forsberg it would have been nice to play more games, but considering the circumstances he is gaining valuable professional experience while learning to deal with some healthy competition for the No. 1 goalie position. If Jarmo thinks he is ready, I would love to see what he can do in Springfield next year.

Well there you have it folks - the second edition of Wennberg Watch. The next time I post one of these will most likely be right on the heels of the JWC in January. With all of the Jackets' prospects taking part, it should be a lot of fun to watch!