Welcome to part two of Pressure Points, our summer review of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
In case you missed part one, we did a full recap of the offseason to date. Since then, you haven’t missed anything. We still await the new contracts of both Alexander Wennberg and Josh Anderson. We also wait to see if any other trades come about.
Speaking of Wennberg, he is the subject of our conversation for this piece. Many wonder if he is the Blue Jackets’ number-one center of the future. Will he ever reach that upside?
Wennberg’s Golden Opportunity
Ever since the departure of Ryan Johansen, the Blue Jackets have had a gaping hole to fill in their top-six. Although they got a really good player in Seth Jones, there was no denying the offense would take a major hit. That trade allowed for Wennberg to get his shot on the top line. Early on he didn’t disappoint.
Wennberg opened the season with 12 points in his first nine games, including a four-assist game in that 10-0 blowout over Montreal. Of note, eight of those points came on the power play, all in the form of assists. Then he finished calendar year 2016 with 21 points in his next 25 games. With 33 points in 34 games, Wennberg seemed to embrace the role of top-line center.
Then things started slipping for him in 2017.
Wennberg finished the season with 26 points in his last 46 games, including just 5 goals in 45 games after Jan 1. The issue with him is simple. The league saw his dynamic passing ability and took extra steps to take that part of his game away.
Case in point was their power play. After starting off like a house of fire, the Blue Jackets power play struggled down the stretch. Part of the reason for this was the lack of chances they got. Another part of this was Wennberg’s struggles. Teams were ready for the Blue Jackets’ power play later in the season. They saw the play go through Wennberg and took steps to eliminate his passing options. Pucks that stayed in the zone for long periods of time early in the season were cleared with ease later.
The power play went from the greatest show on ice to one of the more frustrating things to watch in short order.
Questions About Wennberg
This leads to a couple of questions. First, is Wennberg’s success entirely because of the power play? Of his 59 points in 2016-17, 23 of those came on the power play. This translates to 36 points at even strength in 80 games. In terms of points per 60, of those who played at least 1250 minutes, Wennberg was 50th overall at 2.41 points per 60 in all situations. But at 5-on-5 for those with at least 1000 minutes, his 1.52 points per 60 ranked 97th. This needs to improve if he wants to become that top-line center.
The next question is shots. It’s well-known that the Blue Jackets wanted Wennberg to shoot the puck more. Did he shoot the puck more this past season? Well, yes and no.
In 2015-16, Wennberg took 97 shots. In 2016-17, he took 109 shots. In this sense, he took more shots. However, his shot rate per 60 went down. His shot rate went from 5.26 to 4.45 in all situations. So despite all the messages about needing to shoot more, his shot rate went down a little.
That’s the confusing part for me. When he does shoot the puck, it’s a thing of beauty. He has a hard and accurate shot, but he doesn’t use it enough. Teams saw this and chose to overplay the pass. If Wennberg and the Blue Jackets want to take another step in the right direction, he must find ways to shoot more.
The third question is will he do all this and reach his potential? We won’t know that until the games happen. However despite some of the above numbers, I’m confident he will improve. He has some positive things going for him.
Lots of Positives
First look no further than Artemi Panarin. Panarin’s dynamic type of game will help bring out the best in Wennberg. Wennberg now has a sniper on his wing who will bury his chances. But even better, Panarin should help Wennberg become a better goal scorer. Panarin finished in the top-40 last season in primary assists per 60 in all situations. Panarin is more than just a goal scorer. He can set them up too. The success of this duo will help decide how the 2017-18 season goes for the Blue Jackets.
Another thing to look at is improvement from season to season. Has Wennberg improved from his rookie season? The answer is most definitely a yes. His scoring has improved every season and so have his faceoffs. It’s trending in the right direction. If he can continue to improve like this, he will reach his potential.
The last thing to consider are the flashes of brilliance he’s displayed. For small stretches of time, he dominated on the ice in different forms. You have seen his amazing passes, right? He just needs to consistently show this. At just age 22, he’s just entering the good part of his career. The opportunity to succeed is there. He must now shine for the Blue Jackets to enjoy sustained success.
In your mind, Alexander Wennberg is…#CBJ
— Mark Scheig (@markscheig) July 13, 2017
This is especially true given the departures of Brandon Saad and Scott Hartnell. The Blue Jackets will miss them especially at 5-on-5. They were two of their better players in that regard. Wennberg can help soften that blow by taking his game to the next level and becoming a more complete player.
He knows this too. Just look at the way the season ended. It wasn’t what he wanted. Once the summer passes and he has a contract, he’ll come in ready for the task in front of him. Expect Wennberg to enjoy his best season to date. A 20-goal season is not out of the question for him.
The answer to the center question might already be in Columbus. It’s now up to Wennberg to see if he reaches that potential. The Blue Jackets’ success depends on it.
*All per 60 stats are courtesy of stats.hockeyanalysis.com.