When Alexander Wennberg was made a healthy scratch for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, it meant two things.
One, it signified the unexpected and emphatic rise of Alexandre Texier, and, two, that John Tortorella had finally run out of patience waiting on Wennberg’s game to awaken. When asked about his decision, Tortorella said the decision to demote Wennberg from the lineup in Texier's favor “was easy", and frankly, we weren't surprised.
Wennberg played just four of the club's 10 playoff games and didn't play a single minute until Game 2 of the second round series against the Boston Bruins, when Ryan Dzingel was made a healthy scratch (which lasted just one game). In his four games, Wennberg played nearly 42 minutes, registering a 0-0-0 stat line with 0 shots on goal.
Heck, he had zero shots attempted, per Natural Stat Trick, meaning that you (yes, you!) produced roughly as much offense from your couch as Wennberg did on the ice.
The 24-year-old Wennberg joined some ominous company this year, where he scored zero (!) 5-on-5 goals (both of his goals came on special teams), joining Valeri Nichushkin and Tobias Rieder as the only forwards in the NHL this season who played more than 50 games and didn't score a 5-on-5 goal.
Wennberg played a staggering 861:22 at 5-on-5 this season, by far the highest of those three players. He's owed $19.6M over the next four seasons ($4.9M AAV). Noted puck-moving defenseman Ryan Murray (who, to be fair, was having a breakout season) had 1-28-29 in 56 games, besting Wennberg's 2-23-25 over 75, but Murray isn't exactly an offensive dynamo.
As this playoff run proved, if you can't produce offense, and you can't play effectively in a checking role, what role can you fill?
Blue Jackets broadcaster Jody Shelley had this to say on his weekly radio show The Inside Edge on 97.1 The Fan:
"I don't see him fitting in... He's not a guy that's relied upon right now the way he's playing."
The obvious question then is: where do the Blue Jackets go from here with Wennberg? Surely, GM Jarmo Kekalainen is asking the same questions. In his media availability after the series, Kekalainen had some pretty interesting things to say about the Swedish center:
“We had some hard conversations with him today about it. He’s got a lot of pride, so I think he’s going to do that self-assessment as well and get to work in the offseason. In the NHL, in order to score and be an offensive player that he was – a good 60-point guy for us two years ago – you have to get more to the inside. I think he’s probably played a little bit too much outside. He relies on his playmaking skills. He has good vision. But in order to score you have to get more inside. He’s got a good shot. I don’t think he’s lost his ability."
Getting to the inside of the ice is as much a skill as it is a mindset. It takes stones to go over the middle, knowing you may get lined up by a defenseman. Unfortunately, Wennberg has a history with concussions, and big hits (here and here are two of them) in the past have possibly impacted his game more than Wennberg cares to let on.
That lack of confidence is huge, and it's not lost on Kekalainen.
"His confidence level is probably not where it has been before. So much of pro sports is up there with your confidence. That’s something he’s going to have to figure out. I still believe he still has that ability he had two years ago."
Wennberg supporters will argue that his impact is most notably made on the defensive side of the puck, which is true. His value, especially on the penalty kill, is relevant and the Blue Jackets benefit from having a player with his defensive brain on the team. More from Kekalainen:
"Even with all of his struggles in his offensive game, he’s a very good defensive player for us, but obviously we want both. It’s definitely something that we want and require from him is to be good at both ends of the ice. He’s a good penalty killer for us."
Still, Wennberg isn't void of skill. He's a skillful passer and can strip the puck cleanly from opponents. If Cam Atkinson capitalizes on the goal (below) in Game 5, Wennberg is dubbed a hero for making a fantastic forecheck that led directly to a massive goal for the Blue Jackets.
But history wasn't kind to Wennberg, and he was made a healthy scratch for Game 6. Wennberg declined a request to meet and speak with media during locker clean-out day, which puts a nice bow on his season.
Even though hockey season is over in Columbus, Wennberg's season will continue as he will suit up for Sweden in the World Championships, starting this week in Slovakia. It's a huge opportunity for Wennberg to try to shake off a two-year drought, in which he's been reluctant (to put it nicely) to shoot the puck. On this Swedish team, it's likely that Wennberg will be put in more offensive positions, which could jumpstart his game and help propel his confidence into a huge summer.
It's been suggested that the Blue Jackets should trade Wennberg, which would be a lot like selling a house in 2010. It's not as if teams will be lining up for a chance to trade for a player who has produced next to nothing offensively for quite a while. Sure, there are teams with cap space who would likely take on Wennberg's salary, but the return would be for pennies on the dollar, and it's hard to imagine that the organization has truly given up on Wennberg.
"He’s very reliable defensively and much better with face-offs this year, but the offensive part was not there with the way he played this year and he’s going to have to figure it out to get back to that level where he was before," Kekalainen said.
Indeed, this is a big summer for Wennberg to figure it out. And the clock is ticking.