Burgeoning chemistry paying dividends for Blue Jackets rookies
One of the best lines that Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards has put together has been the trio of veteran left winger Scott Hartnell, rookie center Alex Wennberg and rookie center (playing on the wing) Marko Dano. They are showing every game that there is a developing chemistry among them that is leading to that line creating chances and having goal-scoring opportunities.
"In the beginning of the season," Wennberg said, "the easy thing to do was dump the puck. Now, they want me to make plays. Right now, I feel like the plays are happening for me. I feel really good out there."
Tuesday evening in Raleigh, N.C., that line put 12 shots on goal, 12 hits and two goals. Wennberg and Dano both made the Columbus roster out of camp, mainly due to other injured players, before being sent down to the minors. The two youngsters are now playing with a renewed sense of confidence since being recalled from the Springfield Falcons (AHL), Wennberg on December 19 and Dano on February 16.
"I feel better and comfortable," said Dano. "The time that I was in Springfield helped me a lot. The last few years in Bratislava (HC Slovan of the KHL) I played 9-10 minutes a game and no power plays or PK’s. I came here in the beginning of the season and made the team, but then they sent me down because I wasn’t getting enough ice-time."
"From the beginning, it was pretty tough for me. I didn’t expect (being sent to minors), but then I figured out it was the best for me. It was a good move by the coaches and management. I feel more comfortable now. I’m learning more the American-style of hockey. I try to do simple plays. That’s the key."
They both are playing with more poise and showing why Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo kekalainen selected them in the first round of the 2013 draft. They both were identified as players that have the necessary skill and attitude to complement the burgeoning identity being forged in Columbus.
Assistant GM Chris MacFarland is tuned in to the development of the young players as they navigate the transition from the European game to the North American game. He’s not surprised at how quickly they are making the transition and knows that it stems from having the right people in place in both Columbus and Springfield.
"It’s a credit to them and a credit to the coaches at both levels," MacFarland said recently. "That’s what you want to see as the year goes on. You want to see the players get better. For Alex, playing center ice, that’s always a tough thing. You have to play the full sheet of the ice. What’s really impressed me is the poise that he plays with defensively. He has a knack for releasing pressure and making a good little ‘slip-pass’ or finding guys that allow us to get out of our zone. He doesn’t panic with the puck. There’s no doubt that his offense (scoring) is going to come. To me, the patience and poise that he plays with has been really impressive."
MacFarland smiled as he described the way that Dano has embraced the game and is utilizing his 5-foot-11 frame to bulldoze his way through opposing players in a relentless pursuit of the puck.
"And Marko is like the bull in the china shop. When he’s ‘on’, he’s arriving heavy and hard on the forecheck. He’s got ‘under the radar’ hands where he can make good plays in short, tight spaces. He’s strong for his size. He’s got a vision to find people, but he also can score if he gets a chance. What I’ve also come to appreciate about Marko at both levels is when he’s on his game, he’s playing in traffic. He’s going to the hard areas and he’s paying the price."
Scott Hartnell is a veteran player that has seen many young kids come and go in the league. What he sees in these two young players is an energy and drive that is bleeding over into his play since being put on a line with them by Todd Richards. It doesn’t surprise him that they are able to create chances and scoring opportunities.
"I think they feel more comfortable playing against men," Hartnell said. "They’re both young kids that have a lot of skill. They work hard every practice putting in the time and the effort. You can see the confidence that both of them are playing with. It’s been fun playing with them and I think we’ve created a lot of opportunities."
Todd Richards has not been hesitant to play Wennberg (21:32 TOI vs. Carolina) in all situations. Dano had 15:02 of ice-time against the Hurricanes, all of it at even-strength. He had that line out late in the game against Carolina with the score tied at 3-3. That’s the growing confidence he has in these youngsters. But, the confidence is only part of the equation.
"Chemistry-wise, it just looks like they have a good feel for each other," said Richards. "Maybe it’s how they think the game? Obviously, it’s how they see the game, their vision. It’s the anticipation and the skill that they can make certain plays. Whether it’s spinning and making a play or making a pass to the other guy. Why not just keep that going? I think it’s worked. So, the chemistry is the big thing."
Both players are just 20 years old and should be a lock to make the team next season. The chemistry the Swede and Slovak are forming will only mature and ripen like a fine wine over time. Both are excited to play in the NHL and their growing confidence is proof that they are adapting well.
"We’re both young guys and we want to be good for this organization," Wennberg said. "Dano and I can be here for a long time, but there are still so many good players here. I think this team is going to get better and better. The future of this organization is really bright."
This would seem to be only the tip of the proverbial iceberg for these two young Europeans. But, they’re being developed the proper way by a Blue Jackets organization that is on the path to fostering a winning culture within the walls of the arena they now call home.
The Blue Jackets return to action Thursday as they take on the Red Wings in Detroit at 7:30 p.m., with the FOX Sports Ohio pregame show "Blue Jackets LIVE" beginning at 7:00 p.m.