On Mar. 13 at Nationwide Arena, Todd Richards tapped Alexander Wennberg on the shoulder to be the Blue Jackets’ fifth shooter in a shootout which, to that point, had been scoreless.
The cerebral 20-year-old had no inkling that he would be the next name called, but he was doing his homework just in case. He paid close attention to the unsuccessful attempts of Mark Letestu, Ryan Johansen, Artem Anisimov and Jack Johnson before him, searching for any tendency or weakness in Oilers goaltender Ben Scrivens.
Already having a solid game with two assists — setting up the opening goal and the tying goal late in regulation — Wennberg had a clear-cut plan of attack when it was his turn in the skills competition. He scored the shootout winner in that game, and also in the Jackets' next meeting with the Oilers five days later at Rexall Place.
That moment was a microcosm of Wennberg’s emergence in the second half of this season, one that hasn't gone according to plan for the Blue Jackets but has been brightened somewhat by the performances of young players. Wennberg, who started the season on the wing and struggled by his own admission, has looked a much more confident and assertive player since moving to his natural center position.
A couple of weeks ago, Richards assembled a line with Wennberg in the middle flanked by veteran Scott Hartnell and fellow rookie Marko Dano, primarily because he was running out of options with the Blue Jackets’ offense sputtering. That experiment has turned into quite the success story and Wennberg has been, quite literally, right in the middle of it.
“I’ve felt pretty good on the ice lately,” Wennberg said. “Obviously, I haven’t been scoring a lot of points or putting the puck in the net as much as I want to, but my game feels good right now. My line mates are great and we all seem to work really well together.
“We work hard together. We still have to work at getting better defensively but you’re always doing that, right?”
WATCH: Wennberg's slick shootout winner in Edmonton
It would be unfair to assess Wennberg’s development and growth solely on point production (even though the offense is starting to come on as of late), but Wennberg is the first to point out the number of chances he’s had and not converted. It’s bugged him, no doubt, but he has seen the frequency of those chances increase because of increased confidence with the puck on his stick.
Earlier in the season, he missed open nets and passed up on opportunities that would have been better served on the net. Now that the NHL game is beginning to slow down for him (and with a brief stint in the minors under his belt), Wennberg’s excellent vision and hockey sense is catching up, and he’s making the plays that he’s used to making.
“The start of the season was pretty tough for everyone, myself included," he said. "For me, it felt like I wasn’t playing with the confidence I’m used to. It’s not that I was scared on the ice, but I wasn’t holding on to the puck like I normally do and I wasn’t being patient and doing the things that I know I can do well.
“When I got sent down, that was like a wake-up call. Being called up again felt like a great opportunity for me; it felt like a fresh start and you have to take advantage of it. I needed to come back and show the type of player that I am and also the player I can be, and I don't think I that as much in the first 15 or so games I was here.”
Playing a familiar role has certainly helped, and Wennberg has looked awfully strong centering Hartnell and Dano -- arguably the Jackets' best line over the last handful of games. He has five points in his last four games, including multi-point efforts at home against Edmonton (two assists) and in Vancouver (goal, assist).
With the improved play has come added responsibility, and Richards has shown no hesitation entrusting Wennberg with more minutes and against quality competition. Wennberg has become a go-to player on the penalty kill, and in the Jackets’ shootout win over the Oilers that began their western Canada swing, he logged 21:55 with a 53 percent success rate in the face-off circle.
“It’s a lot of responsibility playing center,” Wennberg said. “I’ve always played center so I’m used to the role and what I need to do, but this is a really tough league. If you go in soft for a 50-50 puck in the NHL, you’re going to lose it every single time. You don’t have a chance if you play that way. The players are so strong and so quick, and you have to be alert all the time. I think that’s the biggest difference from playing in Sweden and playing at other levels.
“You get confidence when you feel like you’re doing the right things and the coaches tell you the same. I’ve had some bad bounces, hit some crossbars, but I feel like I’m in the right spots. I have to keep working – right now, I’m getting opportunities and our line is playing well, but I also know that I have to do more.”
Richards believes that 'more' is indeed on the horizon for Wennberg, but there’s no denying the maturation of his game from only a few short months ago.
“I think it’s his confidence that’s probably helped him, but he’s a 200-foot player,” Richards said. “You can’t base how he’s playing based on his numbers. We’ve been happy with what he’s done, his progress, and I think early on in the year it can be overwhelming for young guys. Since he’s come back and we’ve used him in the middle, he’s been really good.
“You watch the way he plays now and he’s playing with a lot of confidence. It’s a credit to him and it says a lot about him as a young man and just being a professional. We use that word when we talk about players – and I’ll tell you what, Alex is a good young pro. He takes care of himself off the ice. On the ice, he does the right things and practices the right way. You see all these things are translating into his game, and he’s becoming a really good player.”