The biggest factor in the Columbus Blue Jackets‘ resurgence during the 2016-17 season was the development of some of their young players.
Defenseman Zach Werenski burst onto the scene and was an immediate sensation and impact player on the blue line, giving the team a dimension it had severely lacked for years. He is already one of the most productive rearguards in the NHL.
Seth Jones, playing in his first full year with the team, also took a big step forward and gave the Jackets another legitimate top-four defenseman.
Another key development was the progression of third-year center Alexander Wennberg, who became a top-six center and one of the Blue Jackets’ most productive forwards.
It came at the right time, too, not only for the Blue Jackets but also for Wennberg.
For the Blue Jackets, they desperately needed someone to step into that role after Ryan Johansen was traded a year ago for Jones. It filled a huge hole on the defense, but created one at another key position. Wennberg more than stepped up and had a breakout season, finishing with a career-high 59 points in 80 games, making him the second-leading scorer on the fourth-best team in the league.
That will benefit him as he works to get a new contract with the Blue Jackets, remaining one of their only unsigned players heading into the season. He told NHL.com earlier this week that he really is not worried about it at this point and knows the two sides will work out the parameters of a deal. He would still like to see a long-term deal. And that would probably work out well for the Blue Jackets, too.
At this point, given how he’s only had one big season offensively, the Blue Jackets could probably get him on a long-term deal at a fair contract that might be a steal in the future. It would carry a bit of risk in case he doesn’t repeat it, but a lot of times that risk turns into a reward.
It also would be a risk to go with a shorter term bridge deal because if Wennberg repeats his performance from this season — and there are reasons to believe he will — then his next contract would be even larger.
Players like Wennberg who produce the way he did in 2016-17 at that age (22) tend to usually repeat it — and perhaps even improve on it — in the future. A lot of the underlying numbers would seem to suggest that he will repeat it (he was a 51 percent possession player and wasn’t really riding an unsustainable wave of PDO luck). He also should get a boost this season when he is expected to play with the Blue Jackets’ newest acquisition, Artemi Panarin.
Panarin has been among the top-10 most productive players since entering the NHL two years ago and could give the Blue Jackets the potential game-breaking forward they lacked this past season. There is some question regarding how well he will do away from Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, but the possibility of a Wennberg-Panarin duo would seem to have sky’s-the-limit potential.
“That would be incredible to play with (Panarin),” Wennberg said via NHL.com this past week. “He’s a heck of a player. To see the plays he made with Kane, he’s one of the best players in the league. So if I get a chance to play with him, that would be incredible.”
Overall, Wennberg is an extremely valuable player in Columbus.
Teams can’t win the Stanley Cup — or even compete for it — without top-tier centers. And while Wennberg may not quite be a “top-tier center” in the traditional sense, he is the closest thing the Blue Jackets have at this point. Their centers last season included Brandon Dubinsky, who is going to be 31 years old this season and really isn’t a key producer offensively; William Karlsson, who now plays for the Vegas Golden Knights; and Lukas Sedlak, who had 13 points in 62 games.
Combining Wennberg’s production, his potential to keep getting better and the fact that the Blue Jackets are lacking depth at center makes him an extremely valuable player. He’s also one the Blue Jackets better sign to a long-term deal. Soon.