The Columbus Blue Jackets face the sort of conundrums that would stump “Good Will Hunting,” and that messy blackboard isn’t just filled with equations about Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Although, come to think of it, maybe the Blue Jackets might find a solution for this Panarin proof in an indirect way.
In discussing Columbus possibly going after Matt Duchene in the latest edition of 31 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman brought up a name many of us haven’t really pondered in a while: Alexander Wennberg. Specifically, Friedman wrote that he believes “Columbus’s offer for Duchene screams Alexander Wennberg as part of it.”
That’s a fascinating observation. Also fascinating, if frustrating, is the question: “What is going on with Wennberg?”
The 24-year-old is suffering through a downright disastrous 2018-19 season.
Yes, Wennberg’s clearly more of a passer, but two goals (none at even-strength) is still troubling, and totaling 23 points in 58 games is disappointing. After averaging at least 18:08 TOI during the past two seasons, Wennberg’s slipped to third-line center in Columbus, logging just 15:46 minutes per night, the second-worst average of his career.
The telltale sign of a miserable season is seen in his atrocious 3.6 shooting percentage, more than anything else.
It’s becoming almost a rule to wave NHL GMs off with the motto: “Simply don’t move prominent young players when their shooting percentages are way down,” but Wennberg’s situation is especially confounding. Allow me to rummage through the many ins and outs.
- It’s not just bad puck luck.
For a passer such as Wennberg, it can be helpful to consider on-ice shooting percentage, not just his personal shooting luck. While Wennberg’ 8.3 on-ice shooting percentage is a big drop from last year’s career-high of 10.6, it’s not that far off from his career average of 8.9 percent.
When considering bounces, it’s tougher to let a player off the hook when they’re not creating a ton of them.
Wennberg hasn’t even generated a shot on goal per game this season, only managing 55 in 58 games, marking a career-low of .95 SOG per contest. He’s never been a volume-shooter, yet perhaps opposing defenders are so convinced that he won’t shoot, that it may also affect his ability to set up linemates? On Feb. 3, The Athletic’s Tom Reed wondered how much longer Columbus could wait through Wennberg’s offensive struggles (sub required), featuring this bummer of a quote from Wennberg.
“You gotta create your own luck and right now I don’t have any,” Wennberg said.
On one hand, Wennberg’s ice time is down. If John Tortorella has permanently soured on the Swede, then that’s a big concern.
Yet, it’s not as though Wennberg’s totally buried in the lineup. While he’s generally slotting in at 3C, Wennberg’s most frequent even-strength wingers have been Anthony Duclair and Oliver Bjorkstrand, according to Natural Stat Trick. Duclair’s speed and Bjorkstrand’s goal-scoring potential give Wennberg something to work with, if nothing else.
He’s also been on the second power-play unit, and it’s a group with reasonable talent, considering its secondary stature. You could do worse than lining up with the likes of Seth Jones, Bjorkstrand, Boone Jenner, and Josh Andersen, as Wennberg is currently slated to do.
It’s not a perfect situation, but Wennberg’s also not being healthy scratched and glued to the bench, either.
This in-depth breakdown from Jackets Cannon compares Wennberg to some other players like Max Domi, Dylan Larkin, and Jonathan Drouin, pointing to a potential future turnaround. At the same time, that profile also brings into question one area where Wennberg may still shine: his two-way game.
A few days ago, The Athletic’s Alison Lukan did point out ($) that Wennberg does bring decent under-the-radar attributes to the table, such as his ability to initiate an effective forecheck, and his acumen when it comes to exiting the defensive zone.
Columbus has seen better days from Wennberg, after all. He managed 40 points in just 69 games in 2015-16, then rattled off career-highs of 13 goals, 46 assists, and 59 points in 80 games in 2016-17 (the only season he’s exceeded 69 GP so far in an NHL season). There was a time when it seemed like Wennberg was on an upward trajectory, although those feelings have faded.
- The Matt Duchene solution?
Trading for Duchene becomes immensely fascinating in at least one scenario: what if Columbus moves on from Panarin, but trades and then extends Duchene, instead?
On one hand, Panarin makes a bigger impact than Duchene by various measures, particularly if you zoom out beyond what’s been a fairly hot contract year for Duchene. On the other, it seems clear that Panarin is unlikely to return, so Columbus could avoid losing Panarin for nothing (except $6M in cap space) by pivoting to Duchene. Instead of the giant collapse that would be going from losing Panarin for nothing but that cap space, they could instead take the more palatable step back to Duchene, likely at a substantial increase from that $6M per year.
If Duchene was on board to sign an extension with Columbus, trading away Wennberg and his $4.9M cap hit through 2022-23 would make sense even if Wennberg does bounce back considerably from this slump. The Blue Jackets could also recoup some of the costs in landing Duchene if they decided to move on from Panarin.
Interestingly, there are quite a few ways that could work out. Maybe the Blue Jackets find a way to keep both Panarin and Duchene for a big push in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Perhaps they decide that renting Duchene and moving on from Wennberg would be the best move?
Consider one other amusing wrinkle to this situation. Reports indicate that Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen wasn’t on board with potential trade partners discussing possible extensions with Artemi Panarin (at least earlier, such as during the offseason, and before the trade deadline heated up). Now, it’s tougher to gauge the value of a potential Duchene-to-Columbus trade without knowing if the speedy center would sign an extension.
Whether a Duchene trade is likely or not, the Blue Jackets need to really dig to find out if Wennberg’s really worth keeping around, or if it’s best for everyone if he has a “change of scenery” — if some other team would even be on board with buying low on the playmaker.
“When or if to move Wennberg?” is not the toughest question Kekalainen faces, but it’s consistent with the Panarin and Bob conundrums in that it’s pretty complicated.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.