By just about any measure, Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski is having a standout rookie season.
The eighth pick in the 2015 draft already has a stellar resume. Last season, he thrived as a sophomore at the University of Michigan, then helped AHL Cleveland win a Calder Cup with five goals and 14 points through 17 games. In his first season at the NHL level, he’s already making an immediate impact.
Werenski has quarterbacked the Jackets’ league-best power play—currently clicking at a 25.8% rate—from day one and has racked up 25 points through 40 games, distinguishing himself as one of the league’s top freshmen.
Considering that rookie class includes the likes of Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Mitch Marner and Matthew Tkachuk, that's no small feat. And, that he's a defenseman, a position with a typically longer and more difficult development cycle, makes it all the more impressive.
The 19-year-old blueliner from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, says the entire thing still feels like a whirlwind.
“I don’t really think it’s hit me yet,” says Werenski. “I feel like when you dream about playing in the NHL, it never really hits you.”
The NHL experience can be a challenge for those new to the circuit, even away from the rink.
“The change off the ice is the hardest part,” he says. “Going to college, where you have classes and a full day, then practice later and then homework, you’re pretty much busy six or seven days of the week. You get to the NHL and you go to the rink for two hours a day, and then you have downtime. I think the hardest part for me is finding hobbies and things to do. You want to rest whenever you can, but at some point you also want to do things.”
Werenski has had to adjust to another big change from college hockey: less practices and optional morning skates.
“We don’t really practice much and, when we do, it’s pretty short,” he says. “At first, I didn’t like it. I felt like I wasn’t getting enough puck touches and wasn’t feeling good on the ice with the puck, but now that I’m used to it, I really enjoy it. I feel like the rest is needed and that it’s only going to pay off in the long run.”
It’s also a longer season than Werenski had been accustomed to in the NCAA ranks, where he played 71 games over two campaigns with the Wolverines.
“You play a lot of games in a short amount of time, and I’m used to playing 35 games a year in college,” he says. “I’ve already played 40 and we’re not even halfway through the year, so you’ve gotta come prepared every game. You’ve gotta treat your body the right way in order to perform the best you can on the ice.”
The most notable figure on Werenski’s stat line might be his 21:11 time-on-ice average, fourth-highest among Columbus defensemen and the league’s rookies. He’s playing key minutes and drawing tougher defensive assignments.
“Once I got to Cleveland and had the playoff I had there, I got a lot more confidence from it, and felt like I could really step in here and have an impact,” says Werenski. ” I felt like I had a strong camp and preseason. The coaches and management here have given me an opportunity. I’m just trying to take that opportunity and run with it."
The toughest forward Werenski’s had to defend against so far?
“[Sidney] Crosby,” he says without any hesitation. “He’s fast, strong, the best player in the world. Whenever you think you have him, or you think he’s not going to do something, he does it. He’s very unpredictable, and I think that’s what makes him so good. You never really know, you’re always on your toes, trying to figure out what’s next for him. I think for me that was fun, it’s hard obviously, but it’s really enjoyable going out and playing against him.”
For Werenski, the youngest player on a youth-filled team, having others find their way has definitely helped.
“Our leadership core is a pretty young group and they’ve made me feel comfortable from the second I got here,” he says. “I think that definitely helps when you have guys that are trying to figure it out with you, and guys that are there to help you.”
A 16-game winning streak is something most players don’t get to experience in their entire career, let alone during their rookie season, and Werenski is more than happy to have been a part of the one Columbus went on between November 29, 2016 and January 5, 2017.
“I think the best part about it was that we weren’t thinking about the streak or really anything, we were just going out there and playing hockey and having fun,” he says. “We were coming to the rink with smiles on our faces. We felt like we were always going to win, no matter what situation we were in during a game. We felt like we were always going to come back and win or hold the lead. It’s a ton of fun when you’re winning like that.”
An NHL rookie experiences a lot of firsts—the first game, first shift, first point, and so on. But the first goal is unforgettable, and Werenski scored his on October 15, 2016 against the San Jose Sharks, with a seemingly innocent wrist shot that beat Martin Jones 3:44 into the second period. He describes the moment with vivid detail.
“The first thought that popped into my head was to look over to where my parents were sitting—I knew where they were sitting for the game,” says Werenski. “When I looked over there, they were both on their phones. I think they were getting texts from people congratulating them so they didn’t look over at me, but it was pretty cool that they were there for it.”
For his part, Werenski has been paying attention this season, making sure to soak up whatever knowledge he can from his teammates. Luckily, he's among a crew of blueliners that have navigated many of the obstacles he's faced so far, and they're all willing to share their experiences.
“I think all of the defense corps—Jack Johnson, David Savard, two guys that have been in this league for a long time—I’ve talked to them quite a bit. Seth Jones is my defense partner and we talk all the time. I just pick up on things he does, the way he carries himself on and off the ice. He’s an All-Star this year for a reason. It’s really nice to go out there, and play with and learn from him.”
Another influence has been coach Jon Tortorella, the notoriously prickly bench boss who has been a major reason for the Blue Jackets’ ascent in the standings.
“It’s awesome,” says Werenski. “He’s hard on you when he has to be, and he lets you play your game when you’re doing the right things. Sometimes, he’s brutally honest and you don’t want to hear it, but it’s all for good reasons. He’s trying to bring the best out in you, trying to make you a better player. He’s got the right intentions and he’s been great to me. He lets us young guys go out there and play our game and lets us be offensive. He just wants to make sure we’re playing hard.”
All in all, Werenski’s NHL career has gotten off to a tremendous start, but he knows there’s still a lot of work to be done, especially with his goal of simply making the big-league roster in his rearview.
Perhaps the toughest obstacle Werenski’s had to face so far? The cannon that fires at Nationwide Arena in Columbus whenever the Blue Jackets score a goal. “The first preseason game, I was a healthy scratch and sitting up top. I didn’t know it was gonna go off, and I jumped a little bit. It shocked me.”
Halfway through his first season, however, the blast has become another new norm for the defenseman.
“It’s cool, though, I like the cannon. It never really catches me by surprise anymore.”
Neither is anyone caught by surprise when a Werenski play triggers that cannon.