Alexander Wennberg’s entire rookie season was summed up in one sequence during Saturday’s season-ending victory over the Islanders.
With a delayed penalty on the Islanders pending, Wennberg whipped a back-door feed to Scott Hartnell. After a Halak save, Hartnell zipped the puck right back to Wennberg, stationed at the right hash mark with a gaping net in front of him.
Wennberg fired wide.
The Blue Jackets regained control and moments later, fellow first-year Marko Dano sent it right back to Wennberg, who didn't miss a second time and tied the game.
Wennberg was right where he was supposed to be, overcame a missed opportunity, and stuck with it to get the job done -- that is his rookie season in a nutshell.
The 2013 first-rounder made the leap to the NHL at the start of the season with many experts ranking him first among the organization’s deep pool of prospects. While Wennberg’s talent was obvious, there was a noticeable adjustment period and Wennberg experienced some growing pains. While most youngsters searching for their pro game have the luxury of reduced roles or time in the minors, that was not an option for the banged-up Blue Jackets, who were at times missing three of their four regular centers.
“Wennberg, I thought, had a tough start. We had to put him in a tough spot,” said Kekalainen, after the team spent most of the first half of the season with injuries to Brandon Dubinsky and Boone Jenner in camp and Artem Anisimov and Mark Letestu lost soon after for extended periods.
“We always try to avoid putting players into situations where they can’t succeed, but we had so many injuries that we had no choice. He had to play and then we had to ship him to Springfield because he had lost his confidence a little bit.”
When he was sent to AHL Springfield on Nov. 29, Wennberg had three assists and a minus-14 rating in 21 games. When more injuries summoned Wennberg back to Columbus again on Dec. 20, he was a different player.
“He has a great attitude; he’s a really good kid. He took it the right way, got his confidence back on track, played well and earned his way back here,” said Kekalainen. “And ever since then, he’s been a different player getting better and better.”
“Plus-minus was at a level where you don’t want to see it, but he kept getting better and better and started scoring, too.”
Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said throughout the second half of the season that he didn’t believe Wennberg’s plus-minus numbers were an indication of how we was playing, a level of play that spiked when Richards decided to place Wennberg on a line with Hartnell and Dano.
“I think Alex was struggling a bit defensively, because you don’t play much defense when you’re playing offense in the other zone,” said Hartnell. “I told him to make plays whenever we have a chance and if there’s no play to make, just get it deep and I’ll go get the puck for him and get it to him. I think the confidence he got the last little while is huge.”
From Mar. 3 to the end of the season, Wennberg put up two goals and 11 points in 16 games. His overall game improved, including his face-offs. There’s still room to improve for Wennberg in that area, especially with an injured hand affecting his draws in the last few weeks of the season, but his overall game and confidence rounded into form as the season went along.
There’s no reason not to expect more improvement, and Richards thinks his young center can make a big jump over the summer.
“Just based on circumstances this year, talking about injuries and guys in and out of the lineup, the guy who’s really impressed me coming down the stretch, just watching him play and his development, has been Wennberg,” said Richards, saying he thought Wennberg could make a substantial leap in his production next year as Nick Foligno did this season.
“He plays a great 200-foot game, he’s smart, and I think he’s just scratching the surface. He’s got a great shot and I think he’s a guy who has a lot of room for improvement with his goal production.”
Now comes the next step in the development. Wennberg has had his struggles and his successes, but he enters his first NHL off-season with the organization very high on his growth as a professional.
No time to rest on that modicum of success, though -- there’s more work to do.
“As I said to those guys in the exit meeting: do not make the mistake of thinking that now you’ve got it made and this is good enough," Kekalainen said. "Now you’ve got to take the next step. That’s how we’re going to get better as a team.”