It’s been almost a year since the Columbus Blue Jackets traded Ryan Johansen.
At the time, the trade seemed to open a huge hole at center ice, one that Jackets fans hoped might be filled by Auston Matthews.
But, of course, the Jackets didn’t get Matthews. They ended up with the third overall draft pick, using it to select Pierre-Luc Dubois, a player who believes he can be a “first-line center in the NHL,” but was sent back to junior at the start of the current season.
And so many felt it would be another year of struggles for the Jackets. Until they had a legitimate No. 1 center, it was going to be tough. Sure, the young defense would develop, and perhaps Sergei Bobrovsky could keep them in most of their games. But as a whole, hopes for 2016-17 were pretty low.
Enter Alexander Wennberg, the Jackets’ first-round draft pick in 2013. The 22-year-old is surpassing all expectations in 2016-17. Playing on a line with Brandon Saad and Nick Foligno, Wennberg has piled up 20 points in 21 games, including 15 assists.
“He has the vision, he can make plays,” Saad told the Columbus Dispatch recently. “Once he has the puck on his stick, he’s deadly with it.”
Last Friday against Tampa Bay, Wennberg won a puck battle in the corner, then fed Saad in front for the game-winning goal:
Wennberg’s play-making has also helped the Blue Jackets become the NHL’s most deadly team with the man advantage. While rookie defenseman Zach Werenski has deservedly earned much of the credit for the Jackets’ power play, it’s Wennberg’s nine PP assists that lead the team.
Read more: Werenski learning the rigors of an NHL schedule
Where did all this come from?
Well, head coach John Tortorella started giving Wennberg more ice time about a year ago, not too long after he took over from Todd Richards.
“He’s been probably one of our best play-makers,” Tortorella said in January, per NHL.com. “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.”
It remains to be seen if Wennberg can maintain his points pace. He may cool off a touch, or maybe even more than a touch. But as of today, he’s keeping some pretty impressive company among NHL centers:
Wennberg scored his fifth goal of the season last night; it turned out to be the game-winner in a 5-1 domination of the Lightning.
The Jackets now have just one regulation loss in their last nine. In their last five games (2-1-2), they’ve outshot their opponents by a combined margin of 189 to 125.
Their next game is Thursday in Colorado, where the Avalanche better bring a lot more intensity, because this Columbus team might be for real.
Related: Don’t tell Torts, but the Jackets’ Corsi has been really good lately