“It was pretty much a nightmare start to the season.”
Alexander Wennberg then shook his head, recalling the hard hit he took from New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider in the first period of the season opener, resulting in a concussion – one that would keep him out of the Blue Jackets lineup for nearly two weeks.
Coming off a strong training camp and looking poised to take a step forward after a quality finish to his rookie season, the 21-year-old Wennberg was promptly introduced to a step back.
And it was mightily frustrating.
He watched helplessly as the Blue Jackets dropped the next five games he missed, and then were shut out in the game in which he returned, resulting in Todd Richards’ dismissal as head coach. Like many players in the room, Wennberg felt responsible for one man losing his job, but was also determined to get going under new coach John Tortorella.
Then bad luck struck again in the form of a foot injury on Nov. 10.
Wennberg would miss the next six games, but thankfully, the team’s record (4-2-0) wasn’t as bad as the first time he was sidelined. He jumped back in on Nov. 25, and along with good buddy and fellow Swede William Karlsson, earned the trust of the coaching staff in all situations.
Lately it’s been the power play where Wennberg has made an impact, and Tortorella went as far to say he’s “ignited” the Blue Jackets in that regard after a rough stretch.
“He’s been probably one our best play makers,” Tortorella said of Wennberg. “When you talk play makers, everyone thinks offense, but coming out of our end zone, too, he makes plays. He’s not an off-the-glass guy. He wants to try to make a play so we keep possession.
“For such a young man, I just love his poise, and that’s what you need. You can’t be afraid to make a play and he has shown that – and he deserves the minutes he’s getting.”
Wennberg has at least a point in five of the Blue Jackets’ last eight games, and has two three-point games (the first of his NHL career) in the last three weeks. In those eight games, the only time he didn't log at least 15 minutes of ice time was Dec. 29 against Dallas (14:22).
Wennberg said Tortorella has talked to him one-on-one and also shown video of the things that make him successful: retrieving and holding on to pucks, making plays in all three zones, and being strong away from the puck. Confidence has been a slow build, beginning with his reuniting with Scott Hartnell in early December and taking a step forward in a two-assist effort in Philadelphia a few days later.
“Coming back from the injury, I was just chipping pucks and sometimes making some stupid plays. It wasn’t my game at all,” Wennberg said. “I’m the player that should grab the puck, skate it through the middle, and look to make something happen. That’s one of my strengths and I want to play to it.
“After the game in Philly, I really started to feel good about my game. Being comfortable taking risks is something I’ve gotten better at, too. Making safe plays is fine, and there’s a time for that, but you have to make plays in this league and that’s my job.”
There have been some growing pains, too, and they aren't unexpected. Wennberg pointed the finger at himself for the Blue Jackets’ 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay on Dec. 14, a game in which he made a couple of errors on the puck that resulted in goals against – but rather than dwell, he sought to persist.
Tortorella is fully aware and accepts that Wennberg (and all young players, for that matter) will make mistakes. Hockey is a game of mistakes.
How players react to mistakes and react to the teaching that follows goes a long way toward sustained success, and so far, Wennberg has responded in a positive and encouraging way.
“He’s really honest – everyone knows that,” Wennberg said of Tortorella. “If you’re not doing the right things, you’re going to hear about it. He’s tried to help with things I need to work on, and he tells me that when I have the puck, I should be looking to make plays.
“He’s doing whatever he can to make us better players, and for me, I feel like I’ve been a better player since he’s gotten here. If you’re playing well, you’re going to earn the ice time. I think everyone understands and appreciates that.”