Defensive Catalyst: Alexander Wennberg Dominates in Game 1

By Jacob Nitzberg on August 4, 2020 at 7:00 am
Aug 2, 2020; Toronto, Ontario, CANADA; Alexander Wennberg #10 of the Columbus Blue Jackets celebrates his empty net goal with teammates on the bench in the third period against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game One of the Eastern Conference Qualification Round prior to the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena on August 02, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Handout Photo-USA TODAY Sports
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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.

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.

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