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A Wolverine in CBJ clothing? It could happen again in the draft

Maize and blue could be traded for union blue thanks to a historic year for Michigan hockey

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

For a city known for its scarlet and gray tint, hockey in Columbus has been tinged in blue from the very beginning. 

That will happen, after all, when the team is named the Blue Jackets. But from another perspective, in the rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan that transcends college football but also thrives on the hockey rink, the NHL franchise has leaned more Wolverine than Buckeye. 

In CBJ franchise history, five Michigan products have traded maize and blue for union blue, with those players skating in 888 games with the Jackets. That includes 445 games from Jack Johnson and 335 more from current defenseman Zach Werenski as well as cameos by Tyler Motte, Chad Kolarik, Blake Sloan and Shawn Hunwick. 

Meanwhile, four players have skated the four or so miles from Value City Arena to Nationwide Arena, going from Ohio State scarlet to the Jackets' red pants. Those four players have combined for 494 games, led by RJ Umberger matching Johnson with 445 contests in a CBJ sweater followed by Zac Dalpe, Ryan Dzingel and Nate Guenin. 

Of course, the Blue Jackets are always trying to ice the best lineup possible, worrying much less about where a player is from than if he can get the job done. But it's an interesting quirk of fate how those numbers have developed, especially with this year's draft offering a unique confluence of timing, one that might never be seen again.  

Columbus holds the No. 5 overall pick in a draft that is expected to see four players with University of Michigan ties go in the top 10. Even for one of the most decorated programs in college hockey, this portends to be a historic achievement.  

U-M defenseman Owen Power is widely expected to be taken first overall by Buffalo, while his 2020-21 teammates Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson -- both forwards -- also are in the top 10 of most draft boards. Add in incoming U-M blueliner Luke Hughes, another projected high pick, and it is shaping up to be a historic draft year for the Wolverines -- and with the Jackets right in the mix for those players, it could be time for another Wolverine to make his way down U.S. 23 to Columbus. 

Count Werenski among those who would be happy to see it happen.  

"100 percent," said Werenski, the team's No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft who has been a blueline stalwart for five seasons now. "It would be awesome. My first two years we had Jack here, and then Tyler Motte was a Michigan guy who was in Columbus for a little bit, but yeah, having a young new face, a Michigan guy, I would love it.  

"I think it would be awesome, and I think the fans would love it because if they do end up going that route, it's going to be a really good player, so I think it would be exciting for everyone." 

A Talented Group of Wolverines 

And as Werenski said, if the Blue Jackets do decide to draft blue, they'll be bringing in quite a player. 

That's not a surprise, of course -- the No. 5 overall pick in the draft should be pretty good, after all -- but Michigan head coach Mel Pearson was effusive in his praise for the quartet. 

"Any one of the four in my opinion could go one, and for different reasons," Pearson told BlueJackets.com. "They are all different players, and they all bring something different to the table and are all very talented. I don't think you could go wrong with any of the four, so it'll be interesting." 

The reality is the Blue Jackets probably won't have the choice between all four as at least one will likely be off the board by the time that fifth pick comes around. And the betting odds are that Power will be gone by spot No. 5, as most scouts expect the blueliner to go first overall to the Sabres. 

A smooth-skating defenseman with the ability to excel in each zone, Power is coming off a World Championships performance with gold medal-winning Team Canada in which he averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time per game to slot third on the team at age 18. At Michigan, he played in all situations for the Wolverines, totaling a 3-13-16 line in 24 games while going plus-18 with just six penalty minutes. 

There's a good chance Beniers, the top-rated center on many draft boards, could be gone by the time the Jackets pick as well. Already a decorated international player at age 18 -- he won gold with Team USA's World Juniors team in January and claimed bronze on the recent World Championships team -- the two-way center is lauded as someone with a high hockey IQ in both zones. Beniers was plus-21 in 24 games with the Wolverines and posted a 10-14-24 line. 

Johnson, meanwhile, improved immensely as the season went on according to Pearson and could have as much high-end offensive skill as anyone in the draft. The British Columbia native had a four-point game and a five-point contest this past year with Michigan on the way to finishing second on the team in scoring, totaling nine goals and 18 assists for 27 points in 26 games. 

Hughes is yet to arrive in Ann Arbor, but the Canton, Mich., native is no stranger to the program, both from playing up the street with the U.S. National Team Development Program the past two seasons as well as the fact that his brother, Quinn, played his college hockey for the Wolverines. Both Quinn (now with the Vancouver Canucks) and brother Jack (the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft by New Jersey Devils) were top-10 picks and Luke seems set to follow in their footsteps thanks to his combination of size and skill that makes him an effective two-way player. 

Add in first-round picks Cam York (2019, Philadelphia), John Beecher (2019, Boston) and Brendan Brisson (2020, Vegas) as well as second-rounder Thomas Bordeleau (2020, San Jose) and it's no surprise Michigan advanced to the Big Ten title game last year and was an NCAA tournament team before a positive COVID test ended the season abruptly before the tournament began. 

But Pearson remained proud of his squad, as there was an iron sharpens iron mentality in practices and a lot of enjoyment to be had off the ice as well. 

"We've got good players, and it was a lot of fun," the head coach said. "They're a good group, too. I think that's one of the biggest things. There's not a jerk or a knucklehead in that group. That makes it special, that makes it fun, and I think in this kind of crazy COVID year that we had, that really helped this group. 

"They are a special group, and those freshmen, they led our team. The other guys, the seniors and juniors, they provided the leadership and really pulled them along and helped them with a lot of things, but those guys, when the game starts, they're good." 

CBJ-Michigan Ties 

In other words, when the Blue Jackets have their discussion about who might end up being the No. 5 overall pick, there's a good chance Columbus will have a Wolverine as part of the talks.  

That also might be true as the Jackets use the picks acquired from Toronto and Tampa Bay later in the first round, as two other incoming Wolverines to watch are rated in that area in forwards Dylan Duke and Matthew Samoskevich. Adding some intrigue is the fact Duke, who has spent the past two years with Hughes at the USNTDP, hails from Strongsville, Ohio, just outside Cleveland. 

While Columbus and Ohio State are as inseparable as the chocolate and peanut butter in a Buckeye candy, Werenski said the experience of being a Wolverine in Ohio's capital city has been a good one through his first five seasons, even if the Wolverines' football squad hasn't given him much to brag about in recent years. 

"I love it," Werenski said. "I don't really hear about it too much unless it's rivalry week. A lot of people ask, 'Will we ever be able to convert you over?' That will never happen, but I think it's an awesome rivalry, and it's fun for me to be in Columbus during that rivalry. I think obviously Ohio State fans understand it, and I understand it being a Michigan guy, so it just makes it more fun for me. 

"You know that if the roles were reversed and it was an Ohio kid playing in MIchigan, I'm sure they'd feel the same way. It's just one of those things where I played at Michigan, I'm from there, I root for them and I can take the heat from Ohio State fans when we lose. When Michigan finally does win, hopefully in the near future, I'm ready to give it back to them." 

There are plenty of benefits, as well, to a Wolverine ending up in Columbus for both the player and the program. Werenski keeps close tabs on the Michigan program and is able to visit with the squad when they visit Columbus each year to play Ohio State, should the schedule allow.  

It's also a boon to Pearson, who sees a benefit to keeping the ties strong between one of college hockey's top programs and its NHL alumni.  

"It's awesome," said Pearson, who just completed his fourth season as U-M's head coach and spent more than two decades as an assistant to legendary head coach Red Berenson. "I think the last couple of trips we've been down in Columbus, we've seen Zach. He's a good ambassador for us, obviously, and it's nice to see Ohio people cheering for a Michigan guy. He's one of their own now maybe, even though we know he's true blue down deep." 

Time will tell if the ties deepen come the draft in late July, but there are more than a few people who wouldn't mind that being the case.  

"It's gonna be a wild day for the Big Blue on draft day," Pearson added. "Columbus, with (John Davidson) back there and Jarmo (Kekalainen), they are good people. They draft well, they've had good young talent there, and I wouldn't be surprised to see one of our players end up in Columbus." 

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