After a second straight disappoint season for Alexander Wennberg, one where he failed to fully take control of the second line center position for the Columbus Blue Jackets, the front office and head coach made two drastic moves to address his shortcomings: the team traded for Matt Duchene of the Ottawa Senators to help with the center depth down the stretch and in the playoffs, and the team healthy scratched Wennberg for six of the ten playoff games, including the entirety of the team’s sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning in round one.
Now, with the departure of Matt Duchene and center depth perilously thin, the team can no longer afford for Wennberg to struggle and fail to produce points. Simply put, he must take the role of second line center, or he must be moved as part of a package for a player who can.
Alexander Wennberg’s 2016-17 was supposed to be his breakout season. Wennberg posted 13-46-59 in 80 games as the Jackets cruised to the fourth best record in the NHL over the course of the season. Wennberg, who played a career high 18:23 per night that season, was beginning to blossom into a bona fide number one center at the tender age of 22. He scored 11 goals at even strength, posting 36 even strength points along the way, and shot a career best 11.9% on 186 shot attempts over the course of the season.
According to NaturalStatTrick, Wennberg’s two most common linemates for the 2016-17 season were Nick Foligno and Brandon Saad, each playing over 825 minutes at 5v5 with Wennberg. With Foligno, Wennberg posted a 50.6% CF%, while he posted a 53.37% CF% with Saad. Wennberg was clearly comfortable playing with both of those players, and he was on ice for more chances for than against the team with those two linemates. Somehow, Wennberg still managed to drag Saad’s performance down. In 281 minutes away from Wennberg at 5v5, Saad managed to post a whopping 58.65% CF% - Saad was demonstrably better at generating chances away from Wennberg. Meanwhile, without Saad, Wennberg was only on ice for 44.83% of chances. Wennberg’s xGF over the course of the season was 49.23%, but without Saad, that xGF drops all the way down to 43.64%. Did Saad carry Wennberg during the 2016-17 season, at least at even strength? It certainly seems plausible.
Wennberg’s best month since that 2016-17 season was March 2018, when the team traded for Thomas Vanek and the team went 12-3-1, including 6-1 at home, to finish in the first wild card position and qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. During this stretch, Wennberg played 15 games, posted 2-9-11 along with a 22% shooting percentage (on nine total shots), averaging 16:18 per night. Wennberg’s CF% that month was a 54.83%, and he registered a 78.26% goals for percentage - the team scored 18 goals with him on the ice and allowed just 5. Per expected goal numbers on Corsica, Wennberg’s line got some bounces - xGF were just 10.74, while xGA were 6.82. Wennberg’s line outperformed expectations by 9 at even strength in March 2018.
Wennberg was clearly comfortable playing next to Boone Jenner and Thomas Vanek, a sniper and a player willing to do the dirty work in the corners and in front of the net, which allowed Wennberg to be a facilitator And utilize his passing skills.
Last season, Wennberg’s struggles were documented heavily. Remember this quote from just before the end of January?
John Tortorella has had it with his poor center ice play. Would not entertain any questions about the position without cutting it off and saying, “I’ve got one center playing.” Obviously, a reference to Pierre-Luc Dubois. #CBJ— Tom Reed (@treed1919) January 31, 2019
Wennberg played 75 games last season. He posted just 2-23-25, took 64 total shots, and slipped down to just 15:05 per night. Wennberg posted a 50.38% CF% at 5v5, was on the ice for 32 goals for and 38 against (45.71 goals for percentage), and an xGF% of 47.23%. Wennberg’s numbers fell across the board last season as he struggled and failed to find consistent linemates throughout the season. He played more than 400 minutes with just one player, Oliver Bjorkstrand. Bjorkstrand played 405:34 with Wennberg, and 402:30 without him. After Bjorkstrand, Wennberg’s most common linemates were Anthony Duclair (374:10), Nick Foligno (192:54), and Artemi Panarin (112:42).
As Wennberg struggled last season, he likely dragged other players down around him. Bjorkstrand, Foligno, and Josh Anderson posted better expected goals numbers away from Alexander Wennberg. Anthony Duclair played well next Wennberg, but he was traded for Ryan Dzingel at the trade deadline. Upon his arrival here in Columbus, Dzingel played just 19 minutes with Wennberg, a statistically insignificant sample size. Of players that Wennberg played over 100 minutes with (including defensemen), only four of 12 (Bjorkstrand, Ryan Murray, Foligno, and Panarin) posted a GF% above 50%. Wennberg was a liability in the offensive zone, especially late in the season. After January 1, Wennberg only posted seven points as he was dropped down the lineup before eventually being replaced entirely by Matt Duchene. Upon losing his third line role to Boone Jenner (who moved from the wing to the center position due to Wennberg’s continued inconsistencies), Wennberg was scratched in the playoffs as the Blue Jackets swept the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Wennberg’s frustrations boiled over after the season, when he gave the following quote:
“Even though the season here is long and (I have played for) the same coaches (the whole) time, it will be fun to continue playing hockey with other coaches, who have a completely different view of hockey.”
Wennberg proceeded to the IIHF World Championships where he posted 10 points in six games played, good for 14th in scoring in the tournament.
Heading into this season, Alexander Wennberg is under pressure to perform. Aaron Portzline of The Athletic interviewed John Tortorella, and the head coach was quoted about Wennberg saying the following:
He’s a center. He’s a playmaker. If you’re a center, I want you to get the middle of the ice, no matter if there’s traffic there or not, keep the puck until you bring some people to you, and then you’re going to make your wingers better. You’re going to use them better with the open space. But you can’t do it if you don’t have the puck. Those are the two biggest things. To me, keeping the puck and bringing people to you in traffic is part of competing. It’s in his control, and, Portzy, he’s done it. He’s done it. I’m hoping he got some confidence at the Worlds.
Wennberg is clearly going to be under the gun from the coaching staff and front office to regain his playmaking ability. Tortorella has mentioned that he plans to start the season with Wennberg next to new signing Gustav Nyquist.
Could Nyquist help get Wennberg back on track?
Nyquist is not noted as a sniper or a goal scorer, having averaged just 16 goals per season over the course of his career. Wennberg appears to need a player with a great shot and a knack for finding open spaces on his wing to draw attention and finish plays, and another on his other wing who can work hard below the goal line, in the corners, and is willing to fight in front of the net. When those players find extended time next to him, Wennberg has posted his best stretches of his career.
Perhaps instead of Nyquist, Wennberg would benefit from a player like Emil Bemstrom. Bemstrom joins the team fresh off of leading the Swedish Hockey League in goals last season, and is noted by all scouts for his offensive talent.
Wennberg is going to have chances to succeed this season, but ultimately it comes down to the player to take advantage of those chances. With frustration from the front office and coaching staff mounting, this might be Wennberg’s last chance to truly take control of a top six spot in Columbus. If he fails to do so, Wennberg might find himself on his way out of town.