The Blue Jackets have been whipped by high-profile injuries and absences in training camp, but their first selection from 2013 has shown a lot of promise early on and may be the cure for what ails the team.
It has been a trying month for Blue Jackets fans. First and foremost, there is the ongoing contract dispute with emerging star center Ryan Johansen. Then Nathan Horton was discovered to have a degenerative back condition and Boone Jenner broke his hand. So there goes the team’s entire top line. Oh, and defenseman Ryan Murray isn’t taking contact yet as he recovers from knee surgery.
So how about some good news, eh Columbus?
Alexander Wennberg had two assists while centering a line with Matt Calvert and Cam Atkinson in a 6-3 pre-season win over Carolina, so that’s something. The first of three first-rounders taken by Columbus in 2013 along with Kerby Rychel and Marko Dano, Wennberg was tabbed 14th overall and has been playing back home in Sweden since then. But he did make a significant change last season, hooking up with a youth-laden Frolunda team after spending his early career with second-tier Djurgarden. Frolunda’s squad was coached by Roger Ronnberg, who, along with Wennberg and now-Islanders prospect Sebastian Collberg, won a surprise silver medal at the 2013 world juniors despite a rash of injuries. Also on that Frolunda team last season was Leafs prospect Andreas Johnson and Carolina pick Erik Karlsson, among others.
“I chose to go to Frolunda because I thought it was the best way for me to go,” Wennberg said. “It meant going to a higher level, playing in the Swedish League instead of the Allsvenskan. And of course you had those guys like Andreas Johnson who are on the same journey, so it was a good year and it helped me a lot.”
Though Wennberg could have wrecked the Canadian major junior circuit if he wanted to, the youngster’s focus was on hitting the ground running in North America.
“I wanted another year back in Sweden before I came over here,” he said. “It really helped me gain some pounds and work on my game. After that season, I felt I was ready. I want to be here and compete for a jersey.”
The timing couldn’t be better. Columbus is coming off a high-spirited 2013-14 campaign that saw the Blue Jackets make the playoffs for the first time in five seasons and win its first post-season games ever, but the Johansen contract flap has been a constant and irritating distraction in Ohio. At least with Wennberg, Dano and Rychel still in camp, the team has options.
“There’s an opening right there, so we’ll see where it goes,” said president John Davidson. “Those guys are good young players, but we want them to be ready, we want them to be ripe.”
If Wennberg had to serve an apprenticeship in the American League with the Springfield Falcons, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, particularly because it would give him a chance to get used to the smaller North American ice surface and more physical tone of the games here. But he did get in some great reps with the Blue Jackets rookie squad in Traverse City, where, despite a head cold, he helped the team win the entire eight-team showdown. And with the way he has played in the pre-season with the big squad, things are pointing in the right direction.
“He’s a very intelligent player,” Davidson said. “He’s good on both sides of the puck; he can make plays, he can score, he can set up things off the half-wall on the power play and he’s very responsible defensively. With those all in place, we respect him a lot.”
And while it may be a tall order to ask a 20-year-old rookie to fill the skates of Johansen, who put up a team-best 33 goals and 63 points last year, perhaps it will at least take a bit of the sting out of the start of the season if Wennberg impresses and Johansen’s not in uniform yet.