On “breakup” day back in April, Scott Hartnell jokingly identified one of his offseason goals as keeping track of his kids.
Those kids, of course, were rookies Alexander Wennberg and Marko Dano, who formed one of the Blue Jackets’ best second-half lines with the veteran Hartnell. The team was already out of the playoff picture at the time, but the youngsters had plenty to prove and played their way into larger roles with more minutes and responsibility.
As you know by now, Dano was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Brandon Saad deal, but Todd Richards saw enough from the Wennberg-Hartnell tandem that he wanted to give it another go in training camp.
With a hole to fill on the right side, Richards has penciled in speedy winger Cam Atkinson, who had yet another 20-goal season in 2014-15. They spent the first four days of training camp together – including the first preseason game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday night – and it appears as though they’ll remain intact until at least the beginning of the regular season.
Atkinson, who bounced around in the lineup last season, is excited about potentially finding a new home alongside two talented players.
“Practice is one thing, of course, but I’m ready to play some games with them,” Atkinson told BlueJackets.com. “Each guy brings something different to the table; Wenny kind of slows things down a little bit, Hartsy brings so much attention to him and it opens up space for me.
“I like to shoot the puck and Hartsy does too, but he’s also a great passer. I’m excited to see what we can do.”
In Monday’s 1-0 shootout loss to the Penguins, Richards gave the Wennberg line plenty of ice time. Atkinson played over 20 minutes, Wennberg checked in at 22:04 and Hartnell logged 17:22, and in 3-on-3 overtime, Wennberg and Atkinson were the Blue Jackets’ first forward duo over the boards.
They nearly ended the game early on, when a turnover landed on Ryan Murray’s stick at the Columbus blue line and he whipped a backhand stretch pass to Atkinson, who had about 50 feet of separation behind the Pittsburgh defense.
It’s one game and, to state the obvious, a work in progress, but this new-look line has a pretty good idea of what it needs to do to be successful.
“I think our mindset is to use our speed and play in straight lines, but at the same time, we can definitely pull up and make some plays,” Atkinson said. “All three of us are offensive-minded players. I want to make as many plays as I can and create opportunities for our line, and I know they’re going to be trying to find me, too.”
Wennberg in particular drew praise from Richards, who commended the 21-year-old’s offseason “investment” in getting bigger, stronger and faster for his sophomore season.
“Alex, I think, feels more comfortable,” Richards said. “I think you come back more confident and you feel like you belong (in your second year); he knows what to expect in the league and he knows what to expect building-to-building and what to expect from players.
“He had success last year – he can be a really good player, and I think he felt that and it gives him some confidence.”