The Why of Wennberg
What defines Alex Wennberg’s game? Can he be redeemed in Columbus?
Note: I hope y’all appreciate me fixing this article at 11:30 PM the night before I fly to Vegas at 7:00 AM because Wennberg finally decided to show up this season
Alexander Wennberg, much maligned and highly compensated center for the Columbus Blue Jackets, has struggled this season. His numbers are well chronicled by this point - he had just two points in the month of January, he has just 33 shots on goal in 35 games between his goals this season, and questions began to bubble up about just how long the team can wait for him to find his game. Last night, Alex Wennberg registered a goal and an assist for his first multi point game since November 15, 2018 and his first goal since November 10, 2018.
Is there a cause for this? How does Wennberg compare to other pass-first centers? Is there hope for him salvaging his career here, or should he be traded? Let’s attempt to answer these questions below.
What is causing Wennberg’s slump?
Wennberg has never been a goal scorer - that much has been clear about his game since he joined the NHL. Wennberg’s offensive stats since he joined the NHL are as follows (via hockey-reference.com):
Wennberg’s best season, the 2016-17 season saw him post 13 goals on a career-high 109 shots on net, and was instrumental on what was the league’s best power play through the first half of that season where he put up 23 of his career best 59 points. Since that career year, Wennberg’s numbers have trended downward - he posted his fewest shots on goal of his career last season, saw his points scored nearly halved, and posted just five power play points for the year.
Torts has said he has not scratched Wennberg because of Wennberg’s value on the defensive side of the puck, but is that true? Wennberg’s underlying numbers have been a roller coaster since that career season:
Wennberg posted a career best CF% last season, but he played extremely sheltered minutes - his 61% offensive zone starts were a career high. This year, as his zone starts have been more evenly distributed - a factor of his playing on the third line behind Pierre-Luc Dubois and Boone Jenner, a converted winger who has taken the second line center job from Wennnberg - Wennberg has seen his CF% dip below 50% for the first time since his rookie season, and he has been on the ice for more goals allowed than scored for the first time since his rookie season. Playing against bottom six competition, Wennberg’s playmaking ability has not been up to snuff for what the team needs him to be. His hallmark keeping him in the lineup, his defensive play, has also been a letdown. In his last four games, he has a -3 rating with just one point and no games above 35.7% face-off wins.
How does Wennberg compare to others with similar numbers?
According to hockey-reference.com there are four active players who have comparable underlying and scoring numbers to Alex Wennberg through this point in their respective careers: Max Domi, Teuvo Teravainen, Dylan Larkin, and Jonathan Drouin. Let’s look at how Wennberg compares to each individually.
Max Domi, traded to the Montreal Canadiens from the Arizona Coyotes last summer, has been playing second line center for the surprising Habs this season.
Domi, in 53 games played this season, posted 17-30-47 with a 51% CF%. Critically, Domi has done this in just 51.2% offensive zone starts, similar numbers to what Wennberg is getting this season. Just nine of his points have come on the power play this year, compared to Wennberg’s four. For the first time in his career, Domi has a CF% over 50, and has a positive goal differential. Domi’s numbers are trending positively over the course of his career, and he is currently in the midst of his best season yet. Domi, playing with Tomas Tatar and Paul Byron, has not played with demonstrably better linemates than Wennberg, but has managed to far outpace the Blue Jackets’ center.
Teuvo Teravainen, recently extended for five years by the Carolina Hurricanes, has played center in the past and is currently on the right wing for the team.
Teravainen is on pace for his best season of his career, looking to eclipse the 53 points he registered in the 2016-17 season. Teravainen is receiving slightly more favorable zone starts than Alex Wennberg is, with 56-44 split. He has also posted a positive goal differential at even strength this season. However, he is not being asked to play center right now for the Hurricanes.
Dylan Larkin, former All Star for the Detroit Red Wings, is also on pace for his career best season. Playing 22 minutes per game (far outstripping Wennberg’s minutes, which have steadily declined since the 2016-17 season), Larkin is on pace for 77 points this season.
Larkin, recieving a shade more offensive zone starts than Wennberg, is on pace to nearly double his scoring output for the season. Like Wennberg, Larkin has a negative goal differential for the season. Larkin, carrying the offensive load for a struggling Red Wings team, has been a bright spot in a dark season.
Jonathan Drouin was traded from the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Montreal Canadiens for Mikhail Sergachev before the 2017-18 season. Drouin was asked to be the number one center for the Canadiens, and it did not work out well. This season, he has been moved to the left wing alongside Phillip Danault.
Drouin, moved to the wing, is on pace for his best statistical season of his career with similar underlying numbers to Wennberg. Drouin has a -1 goal differential on the season at even strength, but also has a greater than 50% CF% with a 51-49 offensive/defensive zone start split.
What can fans take away from these numbers?
Every player listed as a comparable to Alex Wennberg is having a career year this year, except for Wennberg. Two players were traded for a change of scenery. Domi has excelled as the second line center for a surprise contender. On that same roster, Jonathan Drouin failed at center and was moved to the right wing, where his talents have been better utilized. Dylan Larkin is developing into a franchise center for the Red Wings, while Teuvo Teravainen was extended to play on the wing in Carolina.
The Blue Jackets may have to make an unconventional move to try to get more out of Wennberg - is it time to try playing him on the wing?
Where do the Blue Jackets go from here?
Alex Wennberg has not continued to develop into the second line center the team desperately needs him to be, to the frustration of the coaching staff.
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 has played with nearly every player on the roster this season in attempt to get the struggling center going, and he continues to struggle in the offensive zone. The time might come sooner rather than later to move Wennberg to the wing where he can focus more on getting his offensive game going and not overthink making the right play. The move worked out for Jonathan Drouin in Montreal - could it do the same for Wennberg?
If not, could Alex Wennberg be come a trade piece for the Columbus Blue Jackets? There have been rumors that the Jackets are interested in trading for Matt Duchene, Derick Brassard, and others. With the ongoing drama surrounding Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin, expect this to be a busy time for Jarmo Kekalainen as he looks to shape the team for the future. Players like Dubois, Zach Werenski, Seth Jones, and Cam Atkinson are safe here. Anyone else could be on the board as the team prepares to enter the next era of Blue Jackets hockey. Alex Wennberg could, as part of the right deal and for the right price, be available.
There are no easy answers with Wennberg. For a player of his age to have fallen into a slump is almost unheard of, begging the question of if he is suffering lingering effects from injuries, including his concussion at the hands of Tom Wilson in last year’s first round playoff series against the Washington Capitals.
GM Jarmo Kekalainen and head coach John Tortorella have hard choices ahead of them surrounding Wennberg - how and where best to utilize him in the lineup, with what players can he be successful, or should he be moved at a low value for another piece?
In the meantime, the team and fans wait for Wennberg to rediscover his game.