Alexander Wennberg may be the most important player in Columbus
Not the best, mind you, but...just hear me out
If you ask who the most valuable member of the 2017-18 Columbus Blue Jackets was, the obvious answer would be one of Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, or Seth Jones. If you ask who the best center was, of course it was rookie phenom Pierre-Luc Dubois. If you wanted to know which player was most critical to the success or failure of the team, however, I would suggest that Alexander Wennberg is that player.
Not the best, not the most valuable, but the player whose absence was felt the most and whose future will determine how far this roster advances next season.
Overall, it was a disappointing season for Wennberg compared to his breakout effort last season, when he scored 13 goals and collected 46 assists. His 8 goals and 27 assists this year in 66 games even falls short of the 40 point season he had in his sophomore effort in 2015-16. Like many key players, Wennberg was cold to start the season and failed to click with Panarin on the top line. When he first went on the IR, in November, he had only put up 1 goal and 8 assists in 18 games and was riding a 6 game pointless streak. His December was better (3/4/7 in 12 games) before once again going on the IR, this time with a back injury. The team still managed to win a few games in that time, but without Wennberg and Cam Atkinson they weren’t winning pretty.
Once he returned in January, however, things picked up for him - and for the team. The Jackets played at a 100 point pace in the games Wennberg played from January 11 to April 5. While the Jackets earned just 48% of goals scored in the games Wennberg missed, in that stretch after January 11, that number was 53.67%.
What changed? First, Wennberg moved to the front of the net on the power play. That move coincided with the power play going from league worst to average. The other change was Wennberg finally finding linemates that clicked, in Boone Jenner and newly acquired Thomas Vanek. Together, that line had a 5v5 CF% of 53.45 and a 5v5 GF% of 80.95%. They scored 17 even strength goals in 17 games while allowing just 4.
This chart from Sean Tierney shows how well Wennberg produced (and prevented) goals relative to the other Columbus forwards (also note that shooting the puck himself is still not part of his game, at all)
Also from Tierney, we see that Wennberg was one of the better Jacket forwards at creating and suppressing shots:
From Micah Blake McCurdy at Hockey Viz, we see that Wennberg had a positive Corsi effect on all of his on-ice partners:
(If the black box is above and/or to the right of the red box, that’s a good thing. What stands out is the shot suppression improvement when paired with Wennberg, in particular for defensemen and for forwards like Panarin and Jenner.
Here are heat maps from McCurdy which show where Wennberg influenced shot location:
Here you see that Wennberg’s lines created shots in the high danger area in front of the goal, which overall was a point of weakness for the team. The Wennberg/Jenner/Vanek line earned a 62.30% high danger CF, while the Blue Jackets as a team had just 49.77% when none of those players were on the ice. (Stat courtesy of Natural Stat Trick’s wonderful line tool)
Here you can see quite clearly the defensive impact of Wennberg in the center of the ice.
Wennberg’s presence - and absence - was felt most strongly in the playoff series against the Washington Capitals. In game 1, he scored a crucial goal that put the Jackets on the board in the second period. Unfortunately, he left the game early in the third period after this dirty hit by Tom Wilson (Columbus did score on the resulting power play to tie the game):
Wennberg missed three games in the series, and while two of them were close overtime games, Game 4 was a disaster for Columbus. When Wennberg returned, the Jackets rebounded with one of their best efforts (in an overtime loss).
For the series, in games Wennberg played, the Jackets overall produced 55.15% of shots on goal in all situations (107-87). In the three games he missed, the Jackets only recorded 39.56% of shots on goal (89-136). Clearly they missed his defensive impact, but it also significantly hindered the offensive production. With Wennberg as the second line center and Nick Foligno as the third line center, the Jackets could roll three potent scoring lines. With Wennberg out and Foligno filling in between Jenner and Vanek, neither the second or third line could get anything going. The power play, which scored twice in game one and twice in game two, dried up after that. Wennberg did not return to the first power play unit until Game 6, but it was too late.
Thanks to the contract he signed in September, Wennberg will be part of the team for at least the next five seasons, at a cap hit of $4.9 million per season. He is counted on as a top 6 forward for this roster for the forseeable future. He had played like a 1C in 2016-17, but may have been passed for that position by Dubois. Either way, the team is in good shape if those two can stay on the ice and stay productive. It is the center depth that needs improved, as currently there is no one else on the roster capable of filling Wennberg’s shoes when he is out.