The day after signing with the Florida Panthers, Alex Wennberg said he hoped a change of scenery in the sunny south would be good for a career which had soured in Columbus.
After signing the first big contract of his career, Wennberg went from centering the Blue Jackets’ top line to struggling in a bottom-six role.
Columbus bought out the remainder of his contract in October and, a day later, he was reunited with some Columbus ex-pats in South Florida by signing a one-year deal with the Panthers.
“I feel that the fit in Columbus just wasn’t there,” Wennberg said in October. “Things weren’t really working out. To get a fresh start with a new organization, new coach and a new team, I think it could be something really good for me. …
“My situation in Columbus wasn’t helping me, wasn’t helping the team. It wasn’t the best fit. Columbus is the only NHL team I have played for so I don;t know anything else. To experience some new things is something I am excited about. This could help me become a better person, a better hockey player. Again, it is something I am super-excited about.”
Both sides have benefited from the move.
On Saturday night, Wennberg not only got his second hat trick of the season, but he set a career-high as he scored his 16th goal of the year in Florida’s 5-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Wennberg also became part of Panthers history as one of seven to have multiple hat tricks in one season. The others: Pavel Bure, Olli Jokinen, Ray Sheppard, Sasha Barkov, David Booth and Noel Acciari.
”It has been great from the start,” Wennberg said Saturday night. “This year has obviously been a little crazy, but for me to come in with the new team and get a fresh start with coaches, players and all that, it has been a blast. There is still a lot of season left and I am excited to do even better.”
The Panthers, with former Columbus assistant GM Bill Zito signing him, rolled out the red carpet for Wennberg and made him feel like things really could be different than they were in Columbus where he found himself in John Tortorella’s dog house more than a few times.
Wennberg was not the only player to benefit from new surroundings as the Panthers banked a lot on players who may have needed a new start in a new place. Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair, Patric Hornqvist, Sam Bennett, Brandon Montour are just a few.
”Sometimes guys need fresh starts,” Jonathan Huberdeau said. “Benny comes in, he wasn’t playing much in Calgary; Wenny in Columbus. It’s nice to see so many guys playing well and that’s how we’re going to win.”
Wennberg may have gotten off to a slow start offensively, but he did everything the Panthers hoped. He drove offense, played strong defense, got playing time.
Eventually, the numbers grew. He now has 16 goals; Wennberg had a total of 15 in his past three seasons with the Blue Jackets combined.
Florida gave him a chance perhaps he would not have gotten in Columbus.
They had simply seen enough and likely wouldn’t have put him in a top-6 role right off the bat as the Panthers did.
“He is good. He is a great player,” said Huberdeau, who played on the second line with Wennberg for much of the season. “He makes so many plays, he is a smart player and I am happy he got a hat trick tonight. He has been playing really well lately. It is good to see. He has the confidence now and he’s making plays. He is an all-around player; he plays on the PK, he is smart.”
Joel Quenneville has praised Wennberg’s play since training camp.
When the Panthers got Bennett at the trade deadline, he went up and took Wennberg’s spot on the second line but Wennberg’s production has continued with Frank Vatrano.
Patric Hornqvist will likely join them on Monday night heading into the playoffs.
“Very pleased with his effort, his game and the production part is kind of a bonus with him,” Quenneville said of Wennberg.
“He is reliable defensively, always on the right play. You are comfortable with him knowing that you’re getting offense and defense. Now you’re getting the offense. He can surprise goalies with that quick release. Lot of pace on his shot. … He’s under the radar. We’ve really appreciated his game.”
The Panthers and Lightning started with the rough stuff early on Saturday night and things only escalated as the night went on.
When the NHL’s computers were done adding thing up, the penalty minutes ended up at a combined 154.
Florida took 15 penalties worth 76 minutes with five misconducts (two for Ryan Lomberg, one each for Bennett, Montour and Huberdeau).
Tampa Bay was hit with 16 penalties for 78 minutes with five misconducts of its own.
Don’t expect to see these kind of penalties on Monday night when the two teams meet in the 2021 regular season finale. Or maybe we’ll see more of the same. Who knows.
It is obvious these two teams don’t much care for one another.
As Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper pointed out, we may see this kind of stuff Monday, but when the playoffs start expect guys to try and actually stay in the game and not in the locker room.
“These are games 55 and 56, not Games 1 and 2 of the playoffs,” Cooper said. “I’m sure guys would be a little more careful than they would in situations like this. The physicality may stay the same, but maybe the recklessness won’t be there as much.”
FINES ‘R’ US
A couple of Panthers got slapped with $5,000 fines — the max allowed under the CBA — for third-period infractions Saturday.
Montour got hit for spearing Pat Maroon; MacKenzie Weegar got slapped for a high-stick on Mathieu Joseph.
More coming? There’s a lot of film to go through.
Maroon has a hearing with NHL player safety for his actions against Montour.
ON DECK: LIGHTNING AT PANTHERS
- When: Monday, 7
- Where: BB&T Center, Sunrise
- Tickets: AVAILABLE HERE
- Season series: Florida leads 3-2-1
- TV: BS-FLA, Fox Sports Go streaming
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM