This is character development, folks.
Last year, Alexander Wennberg was a healthy scratch against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. This year, he's shutting down Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews.
When Wennberg arrived in the NHL, his offensive game was well rounded, but the defensive side needed some work. Over his career, his offensive production has dipped, but he's become a truly excellent defensive forward.
Take this play from Game 1, for example. Mitch Marner takes the puck with speed and tries to beat Wennberg with a quick move, but the Swede is quick with a poke and the Blue Jackets gain control of the puck.
He's tough to beat, and he's a big reason that the Blue Jackets were able to stifle the high-powered Maple Leafs offense in Game 1. Below, we can see another example of Wennberg turning defense into quick offense. Zach Hyman enters the Blue Jackets' defensive zone, but Wennberg is right behind him to lift Hyman's stick. After recovering the puck, Wennberg led the rush into Toronto's zone and registered a shot on goal.
Wennberg creates the turnover and then takes the rush down the other way for the shot on goal. #CBJ creating frustrating for Leafs right now, but theres still plenty of time left. pic.twitter.com/9xhW1UB6cF— Alison (@AlisonL) August 3, 2020
In the past, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella has been critical of Wennberg, identifying areas where the forward can improve and being blunt with where he stands. After Game 1, Tortorella was very pleased with Wennberg's game.
"He’s a very smart player away from the puck and does some really good things with his stick."– John Tortorella on Alexander Wennberg
It's no secret that Tortorella's ideology is defensive-minded. He wants players to block shots, close down passing and shooting lanes, and play team-oriented defense — all things that Wennberg did quite well in Game 1.
"(Wennberg)’s a very smart player positionally," said Tortorella. "He’s a very smart player away from the puck and does some really good things with his stick."
As if his defensive contribution wasn't enough, Wennberg also put the nail in the coffin with an empty-net goal that made the score 2-0 with 19 seconds remaining.
Overall, it was a phenomenal effort from Wennberg. However, while we've seen flashes of excellence here and there, he's been far from consistent.
If he continues to work hard defensively, the offensive opportunities will come. Even if he never statistically comes close to his 59-point breakout season again, he still plays a valuable role for the Blue Jackets.