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Blue Jackets have plan to handle life without Werenski

Members of the blue line to take on new roles in defenseman's absence

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Certainly, no one will be sad across the NHL for the Blue Jackets now that Zach Werenski is out for four weeks with a sprained AC joint in his left shoulder. 

Not the Penguins, who are without Sidney Crosby and missed Evgeni Malkin for a spell earlier this year as well. Not the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have spent time without both John Tavares and Mitch Marner, nor the Colorado Avalanche, who have been without two of their three top forwards for much of the campaign in Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog.  

Injuries are just part of the game, and no one knows that more than head coach John Tortorella. 

"He's obviously an important part of our back end," Tortorella said in the aftermath of Saturday's game at the New York Islanders, when Werenski suffered the injury in a collision with forward Anders Lee. "It's part of the game. You just move on and keep playing." 

Yet there's no disputing this will be a big blow for the Blue Jackets, who now see a top-pair defenseman go on the shelf.  

Werenski is a unique player, a smooth-skating blueliner with excellent offensive ability and a key power-play role. He's also been red-hot, posting 10 points (three goals, seven assists) over the past 10 games while playing more than 23 minutes per game on the top pair with Seth Jones. 

On top of that, in that 10-game span, when Werenski was on the ice at 5-on-5, the Blue Jackets had 53.6 percent of shot attempts, 54.4 percent of shots on goal, a 12-7 edge in goals, 57.3 percent of expected goals and 57.9 percent of high-danger scoring chances. His pairing with partner Seth Jones has been a key as the Blue Jackets have tried to claw their way back into the Eastern Conference race.  

"Me and him have a lot of chemistry together," Jones said. "We play very well together, so it sucks to see it." 

In other words, replacing a defenseman who helps the team control shot quality, shot quantity and overall possession while on the ice isn't easy, especially when he's formed such a good duo with someone like Jones.  

"It's a big loss for us," Tortorella said Monday after practice. "Z controls the tempo of the game. He's had a really good start to this year as far as roving. A few weeks ago, we just really had no offense. I talked to Z and Jonesy, said, 'Let's get going here,' and Z (said), 'OK, we're gonna go.'" 

Scott Harrington, who played 73 games a season ago but has been a healthy scratch of late, will go into the lineup Tuesday vs. Arizona, Tortorella said. Harrington, who was the team's seventh defenseman and played sparingly in both 2016-17 and the next season, has played seven games so far this year with an assist and a minus-4 rating. 

"Unfortunately, it's something that I have grown accustomed to over the last couple of years," Harrington said of being a scratch. "I know how to handle myself in these situations. I just try to use all the resources that I can that they have here for us whether it be strength coaches or skill coaches, just try to make the most of every day and continue to work on my game." 

In addition, Markus Nutivaara -- who has been out since Nov. 5 -- was back on the ice for Monday's practice, though Tortorella said he did not have an update on the Finn's progress back from an upper-body injury.  

If he's unable to return soon, a call-up will likely take place at some point from AHL Cleveland with a four-game road swing in the offing starting Saturday.  

Veteran Adam Clendening, who was deputized because of injuries last postseason, is off to another strong start with the Monsters with a 5-7-12 line in 18 games, while rookie Andrew Peeke has the same scoring line in 21 appearances. (Since the publication of this story, Peeke was recalled Monday evening from Cleveland.)

When it comes to lineups, a year ago, Jones gained experience playing with Ryan Murray and could be paired again with the steady blue liner, with other possible pairings including Harrington with Dean Kukan and David Savard returned to a pairing with fellow rugged defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov. On the power play, Murray appears to be the next man up to take Werenski's spot quarterbacking one of the units, while Kukan will also see more time on the man advantage on the right wing.  

"Z is a very big player for our team, and it's real bad that he's out," Kukan said. "But other guys, we have to step up and try to make things happen out there and play with confidence. 

"It's a nice opportunity, a little more ice time probably. I have to do my best out there that I can and just try to make plays offensively and get up on the rush, and we'll see how it goes." 

But perhaps the biggest thing Blue Jackets players can do is not try to do too much. It seems unlikely one player will be able to replace Werenski's offense, but if each player is just the best version of himself, Columbus will be able to get through this month-long stretch without him. 

"It's important for all of us to step up, but it's important for us to stay within yourself as well," Harrington said. "We have a lot of good defensemen in the back and a lot of depth, and we just have to use that and try to fill the void that Z leaves. 

"I think if all of us are going to try to be Zach Werenski, we're going to be in trouble. We'll try to execute our own games to the best that we can and try to maybe take another step, too." 

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