Could Alexander Wennberg be the biggest fantasy sleeper of 2018?
“I like being the underdog so they don’t expect what’s going to happen. It pushes me to work harder and do the things I’m not doing better.” – Kawhi Leonard
For those unaware, Kawhi Leonard is one of the greatest basketball players in the game today and was constantly overlooked as he was never one to show off, but rather stay humble and play his game. This is the definition of the greatest steal of the 2018 fantasy season. He goes by none other than Alexander Wennberg.
Alexander Wennberg is arguably the best center on the Columbus Blue Jackets and had a career year last season, hitting 59 points with an astounding 46 assists while still managing a respectable 13 goals as a non-flashy, pass-first playmaker. Considering that Wennberg is a 1C, plays on the first powerplay line, is playing along one of the newest members of the 30 goal scorers club, Cam Atkinson, and is only doing this at age 23, many would instantly think he has a high ceiling as a young player and surely would be ranked relatively high. It is apparently not good enough for those who are responsible for doing pre-ranks of fantasy websites such as Yahoo and ESPN.
Note: All ranks mentioned from this point on are from Yahoo.
Why The Rank is Low
Yahoo has Alexander Wennberg pre-ranked at draft pick #145. To play Devil’s Advocate to my argument, it does make sense to have him at a relatively low ranking from a fantasy point of view. Already as a pass-first playmaker, it is very clear his shots and goals will be lacking which can be some of the most weighted statistics one league can score (depending on whether the league is points or Head-to-Head). To put into perspective, his shots in the 2016-2017 season were abysmal at 109, tied with household names such as Drew Stafford, Brett Pesce, Riley Sheahan and Jordan Martinook. Only having a player put up 1-2 shots a game can be devastating especially when in a Head to Head league, a small change in stats can make a huge difference in the long run. Also compared to other 1C’s in the league, his ice-time is not the greatest either. Alexander Wennberg averaged 18:23 of ice time which compared to other 1C’s such as Kyle Turris (19:30), John Tavares (20:25) and even on the extreme, Connor McDavid (21:08) can make a huge difference, however, it should also be considered many 1C’s are drafted very early with Tavares having a Pre-Rank of 21 and McDavid’s obviously being at 1.
However, do not let this deter you from Wennberg.
Note: It should also be considered Yahoo ranks often portray players who are heavily talked about on major sports media outlets such as TSN and SPORTSNET and being on a smaller market team such as Columbus does play a part (I will talk about what I call the “Media Effect” in another article, and how it can help you pick up studs off of the waiver wire).
Why You Should Pick Him Up
One of the most obvious reasons to take Wennberg is how Columbus uses him as a player. As earlier mentioned, he plays on the first powerplay line and is also the go-to option on the first line. It should be considered he got 59 points without having Cam Atkinson on his wing during even strength play. For an astronomical majority of the games played, Brandon Dubinsky was the one centering Cam Atkinson, while the minutes were still relatively split between the two, Dubinsky averaging a little less than Wennberg at 17:54 minutes a game compared to Wennberg’s 18:23. Wennberg, on the other hand, was centering Brandon Saad and primarily Nick Foligno (the wings were a logjam, however, Brandon Saad was the only constant on his line). Brandon Saad actually had more even-strength goals than Atkinson with Saad having 23 and Atkinson only having 22. Looking at the assists of the centers also, Dubinsky actually had more even strength assists than Wennberg by one (26 to 25), however, Wennberg decimates Dubinsky’s powerplay assists numbers as Wennberg clocked in 21, while Dubinsky only had 3. This simultaneously proves the value Wennberg has as a playmaker, but also proves the value Atkinson has as a winger. But now you might be asking, what exactly does this all mean? One important note is that Cam Atkinson AND Alexander Wennberg along with Artemi Panarin were a line in Pre-Season, and while Dubinsky is injured, this opens up a huge opportunity for the line of Panarin-Wennberg-Atkinson to open the season.
Notice how all the players who had played with Wennberg had higher numbers of scoring in their given scenarios? Wennberg being 8th place in the league last season in Powerplay Assists while also being on the same line with players who have had higher goal scoring on their line is nowhere near a coincidence and this easily proves his playmaking ability.
Now add in the fact that TWO thirty goal scorers from last season could play on his line AND will play first line powerplay time with both of those thirty goal scorers + a young offensively minded defenseman on the powerplay, and you’ve got yourself a guy who could hit 55+ assists this season. That alone should be enough to seal the deal on a higher rank. If he hit 55 assists last season, he would be tied for 5th in the NHL with Patrick Kane and behind elite company such as Victor Hedman, Connor McDavid, Ryan Getzlaf and Nicklas Backstrom. And keep in mind all these players are easily Top 50 picks in fantasy, while you’ve got a guy who could be looking at a 55+ assist season at rank #145.
While I wouldn’t necessarily take Wennberg near Kane’s overall after reading this, I think I’ve made a fair enough case that picking him a round or two earlier especially if you’re in need of assists and powerplay points would not even come close to a doltish move. His powerplay production and assists as a pick in the late rounds is surely enough to keep you competitive especially as potentially a bench center and should especially be done in leagues where peripheral are not weighted as heavily/not counted at all.