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Wennberg sees opportunity heading into season

Blue Jackets center has caught some eyes early in training camp

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

Memorable moments don't really happen in the first scrimmage day of training camp, but there was a unique situation Saturday as a packed OhioHealth Ice Haus welcomed the Blue Jackets back to the ice. 

In the middle of the second scrimmage of the day, Alexander Wennberg ripped a shot into the net, drawing what was unquestionably the loudest reaction of the day.  

Players score scrimmage goals all the time, and fans always cheer them.  

But this was a unique situation. Wennberg has struggled to put up points the past few seasons, and it's weighed on the franchise, the fans and the talented center.  

As such, Saturday's cheer after his goal felt different, and head coach John Tortorella noticed.  

"They're pulling for him," Tortorella said of the Blue Jackets fans. "I thought he had a terrific scrimmage (Saturday). You can see where his concentration is in keeping the puck, and I thought he played well really in both scrimmages. That line did when they were together with (Gustav) Nyquist and (Oliver) Bjorkstrand." 

Two seasons ago, the 2013 first-round draft pick looked like a star in the making when at 22 years of age he posted a 13-46-59 line in 80 games, buoyed in part by putting up 23 points on a standout power-play unit. A year later, he had an 8-27-35 line in 66 games, and while the power-play scoring wasn't as prodigious, he had an almost equal amount of production at even strength. And over those two seasons, Wennberg was on the ice for 172 goals for and 98 against.  

Last year, though, was admittedly a struggle. Wennberg had a 2-23-25 line and was on the ice for 51 goals for and 48 against while his possession numbers dropped. In the process, he went from the team's No. 2 center to a healthy scratch to begin the playoffs thanks to the trade for Matt Duchene and the emergence of Alexandre Texier.  

There have been plenty of theories as to how it all happened, but talk has become cheap, both the player and coach have said. With Duchene gone, there's a center-sized hole in the lineup, and Wennberg is by far the best equipped player to fill it.  

Though it's early, Tortorella sees a player who understands the situation in which he is in.  

"Him and I have had honest conversations," the head coach said. "I've been very honest with (the media) as far as what I expect. He's always in tremendous shape; he's one of our top conditioned athletes. I just think he has the right type of focus right now and he has to stay on top of that. He has to. It could be a huge, huge thing for this organization if he can find his way. 

"And it's there. He's a really good player. We're going to try to help him, but really, he has to help himself. That's what I'm trying to say; he has to help himself here, too. I can see his approach just through his play, and his concentration is right where it needs to be." 

Wennberg hopes to enter the season with a little momentum, as he joined the Swedish national team at the World Championships after the Blue Jackets' season ended and stood out, posting three goals and seven assists in 10 games.  

He said he's not viewing this season as a "prove it" type of season but does want to learn from how the 2018-19 season unfolded.  

"Obviously I don't want to be a scratch," he said. "I want to play. Last season is last season. You don't really focus on it too much. You take the things and you learn from it. The World Championship was great. You end the year a little better and it gives me a little more enjoyment. I look forward (to this year) a little more because I had a nice ending." 

If there's been a requested place of focus from Tortorella, it's in seeing Wennberg carry the puck more and get both it and himself to the harder areas. A few more shots on goal -- Wennberg had 64 in 75 games last year -- wouldn't hurt, either. There's also the hope the acquisition of fellow Swedish forward Nyquist will result in some chemistry.  

But the specific points probably aren't as important as just getting the confidence back, Wennberg indicated. And with two practices in the books, it's looking like he has that.  

"I believe in myself," he said. "You're expecting a new year, new opportunities, putting out (new) lines. There's going to be a couple of changes for me personally, and you have to go out there and take advantage of it. For me, there's opportunity, and you have to grab it." 

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