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Battalion Breakdown: Zach Werenski

Improvement on defense marked the young standout's 2018-19 season

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Battalion Breakdown is a closer look at the Blue Jackets' past season on a player-by-player basis. Today, BlueJackets.com continues the series by looking at Zach Werenski's season and how it impacted Columbus in the 2018-19 campaign. 

Zach Werenski 

Number:

Age: 22 

Birth date: July 19, 1997 

Height/Weight: 6-2, 209 

Position: Defenseman 

Nickname: "Z"  

Stats (Games, G-A-P, point shares): 82 GP, 11-33-44, 6.5 PS 

Contract: Current restricted free agent 

The development of a young player logically should follow a linear progression. The more experience a player gets, the better he gets. 

In fact, this is often how it goes. But inside that progression can be ups and downs as well.  

So it goes for Zach Werenski. The native of suburban Detroit burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old prodigy, blowing away CBJ rookie records his first season of 2016-17 with 11 goals and 47 points. 

Werenski hasn't matched the point total in the intervening two years, but the more experience he gets, the more the player seems to keep getting better. Take the 2018-19 season as an example. While Werenski had his share of ups and downs, particularly on the defensive end early in the campaign, it was a season of growth for the young standout, who now appears ready to go to even bigger heights moving forward. 

It's a reminder of how players can progress, especially when they are so young. It might not always be a perfectly smooth road, but in the end, it often ends where it needs to be. 

Entering the season: Werenski was coming off a shoulder injury that hampered him through most of the 2017-18 campaign, but he was expected to just keep getting better after two impressive seasons to begin his CBJ and NHL career. Despite the injury, he posted 16 goals in his second season, and the sky appeared to be the limit for a player who along with Seth Jones serves as one of the pillars of the Blue Jackets' defensive core and attacking style of play. 

What happened: It wasn't a great start to the season for Werenski, who by mid-December found himself struggling with his game like never before in the NHL. 

He had been broken up from Jones on the top defensive pairing after the two -- both of whom were getting back into the flow of things from offseason injuries -- struggled together, and head coach John Tortorella was left asking for more from Werenski's defensive game. 

It's something that commonly happens in the development of young offensive defensemen, and to Werenski's credit, he responded the right way. By the end of the season, he was back on the top line with Jones, and his defensive game appeared to have taken big strides forward in its consistency. 

It paid off on the score sheet as well. Werenski went through an ice-cold streak when he didn't score a goal from Dec. 31 to March 12, but he finished on a particularly strong note. In the final 12 games of the regular season, Werenski had a 2-6-8 line, was plus-2, and played almost 24 minutes per game. He was also impressive during the playoffs, posting a 1-5-6 line in 10 games and a plus-3 rating while playing 26:37 per game and turning heads across the league while paired with Jones. 

"I think just in the 200-foot game. I was kind of up and down throughout the lineup," he said after the season. "My ice time was a little up and down. Toward the end of the year, I think it was the most confident I've felt in this league since I've come into the league honestly. Just shutting guys down and playing against other teams' top lines.  

"Me and Jonesy played big minutes there in the playoffs. For me personally I felt really confident at the end of the year. I have to keep working at it. 

In all, even for a year in which there were growing pains, Werenski still finished 22nd in the NHL in points among defensemen and tied for 16th among blue liners in even-strength goals. With 44 points, he placed sixth all-time among CBJ defensemen for points in a single campaign.  

Highlight 

Werenski had one two-goal game and one game-winning goal, and it was the same game. On New Year's Eve vs. Ottawa, he gave the Blue Jackets a 2-0 lead in the second period, but Ottawa stormed back to tie the score in the third. But with 2:01 to play, Werenski skated down the slot with ease, took a pass from Cam Atkinson and slammed it home to delight the sold-out holiday crowd.  

Video: OTT@CBJ: Werenski taps in second for late lead

By the Numbers 

38: With 38 goals the last three seasons, Werenski is ninth in the NHL among defensemen in scoring in that time. He is also fifth all-time among CBJ defensemen in scoring. 

48: Despite playing in 237 career games, Werenski has just 48 penalty minutes in his career, all on minor penalties, meaning he takes an average of one minor penalty every 10 games. 

1: Werenski became the first-ever CBJ player with a playoff "Gordie Howe hat trick," with a goal, assist and a fight in Game 2 vs. Tampa Bay in the opening round.  

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