For Alexander Wennberg, development camp feels like forever ago.
He was the center of attention (pardon the pun) a year ago, just weeks after being drafted No. 14 overall by the Blue Jackets with their first of three first-round picks at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Soft-spoken but brimming with confidence, Wennberg put his stunningly intelligent, two-way game on display – albeit in a limited format in rookie camp – and gave a glimpse of what he’s capable of.
Another year under his belt in the Swedish Hockey League, Wennberg came back to Columbus early in the summer and made a big commitment. He was going to live in Columbus, learn about the city, get to know his teammates, the support staff and get acclimated to living in North America – all in an effort to give himself the best possible chance to be a full-time NHL player this fall.
When training camp began, Wennberg looked the part - and that was after he was "on another level" at the Traverse City tournament, in the words of Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards.
He scored in his first NHL preseason game, a power play goal in the Blue Jackets’ 4-3 overtime win against the St. Louis Blues on Sep. 21, and scoring aside, Wennberg turned in a strong showing while playing in the middle of the ice.
Richards has said that it’s obvious that Wennberg possesses a keen hockey sense and is wise far beyond his 19 years of age. The more he’s played and done so with different line mates, the better he’s felt and his confidence has, in turn, elevated along with his play.
“I think I’ve had a good camp,” Wennberg told BlueJackets.com. “I’m happy with my game and what I’ve been able to do, and (Saturday’s game) was a real big opportunity for me and a lot of the young players here. I think I’ve been showing off some good skills and the coaches have been happy with it, but there’s always more work to be done and always something to improve.
“I felt like I had a good game (against St. Louis), my speed was going and I was skating really well. For the first time being out on the NHL ice, I had a lot of adrenaline and a lot of energy but I focused on playing my game and I got more comfortable with each game. I keep thinking back to that game and remembering the things I did well, and hopefully that will help me in the future, too.”
Among the adjustments that Wennberg has had to make on the smaller ice: constantly reminding himself to keep skating, keep tracking the puck and making quick reads.
“First of all, you have to skate a lot as a center and you have to make sure you’re always moving, whether it’s on the forecheck or the back check,” Wennberg said. “You have to be aggressive in all three zones and if you do that, everything works out. There are some different systems and new things you have to learn, but I feel like I’ve picked up on those things.
“I think I’ve gotten adjusted to it pretty well. For me, now, I don’t have to think as much and I’m just playing. I’m playing with good teammates and good players, too, and I just want to do my best whenever I’m out there.”
Richards has been asked many times during training camp if he’s concerned about icing a lineup with multiple rookies, and each time, he’s said that it’s a non-issue. Wennberg (Swedish Hockey League) and Marko Dano (KHL) have professional experience and have played prominent roles on their respective World Junior teams, so they’re used to pressure, expectations and a lot of things that come with playing on a big stage.
Yes, the NHL is different, but Richards is confident that his young players are fully capable of getting the job done.
“They’ve looked pretty good,” Richards said. “I’ve had no issues with them (either Wennberg or Dano). They’ve been playing at a pretty high level (in Europe), both of them, and yes it’s a different surface but they’re playing against men, so I think that will help with the transition. I think they’ve both done a very good job.”