He's still going through rehab exercises, but Zach Werenski is making good progress with his surgically-repaired shoulder this summer.
The 21-year old defenseman is back on the ice, even stepping into slap shots, and he's hoping to take his first contact at some point in training camp. His focus is also locked on Oct. 4 at Little Caesar's Arena in Detroit, when the Blue Jackets will open the 2018-19 regular season against the Detroit Red Wings - the team he cheered growing up in Grosse Pointe, Mich.
"My goal, ultimately, is to be there for Game 1," Werenski told BlueJackets.com. "You never want to miss time, you never want to miss games, so my goal going into training camp and into the season is to be ready for Game 1. If it's later, like Game 5 or Game 10, whenever that is, I'm going to work to miss as few games as possible and be ready to help the team."
WERENSKI LISTED AMONG TOP 20 DEFENSEMEN IN NHL
Werenski was injured last season Oct. 30 at Nationwide Arena against the Boston Bruins, playing all but 12 games with a damaged shoulder. He underwent surgery May 3, performed by a team physician, Dr. Larry Watson, and was given an estimated recovery time of five-to-six months.
After keeping his left arm immobilized for six weeks following surgery, then going through some tough rehab work to regain mobility and strength, Werenski is now feeling good during on-ice workouts - which began about two weeks ago.
"I feel great out there," he said. "There's no problems right now. I'm just kind of ramping it up here, trying to get my timing back. Everything feels good on the ice. I haven't had any contact yet. That's not until later. I probably won't do that until probably halfway through training camp, but everything is good. Everything's on pace. I actually don't know what my timeline is, to be honest, but I'm hoping to be back toward the start of training camp - probably not Day 1, but as soon as I can be."
Despite playing with a brace, Werenski set multiple career-highs last season - including 16 goals, which finished tied with defense partner Seth Jones's 16 goals for a new franchise record in single-season goals by a defenseman.
Werenski, who was ranked by NHL Network this past weekend as the No. 12 defenseman in the NHL, also set career-highs in game-winning goals (3), shots (207), shooting percentage (7.7 percent), penalty minutes (16) and ice time (22:34).
Looking ahead, Werenski is eager to see what he can do at full strength in his third NHL season.
"I'm not going to say it was a step back for myself last year, because I learned a lot more in my second year [in the NHL]," he said. "It gave me a whole new confidence to what I can do as a player when I'm 100 percent. I scored 16 goals and had a career-high in ice time, so it just gives me an exciting feeling knowing that I'm going to be 100 percent this year and hopefully, knock on wood, make it through a full season that way. I'm excited. I did everything I did last year with a torn labrum and it's going to be good to get back to 100 percent and play like I can."
Aside from not taking contact, he's already doing that during on-ice workouts. He's even taking slapshots and one-timers, which were hindered severely last season by the injury and shoulder brace.
"Oh, I'm firing the puck," Werenski said. "I'm doing everything out there except taking contact. I'm taking one-timers, slapshots, backhands … I'm going through full practices. I haven't felt it one time, knock on wood. I've felt good on the ice - better than expected and a little better than [doctors and athletic trainers] expected too. I think my shot's actually gotten better since last year and I've only been on the ice a few times. I'm excited."
It hasn't been a walk in the park, though.
Rehabbing shoulder injuries after surgeries like Werenski's can often be frustrating, painful and tedious. His was no exception, especially after he removed the sling and began his rehab work with Mike Vogt, the Blue Jackets' head athletic trainer.
"I was just sitting in that sling for six weeks," Werenski said. "I didn't really have too much pain the first six weeks. The most frustrating part is just the beginning of rehab, because you start moving it, but then you realize that you have such a long way to go and there's a lot of days that are painful at the start. Even now, there are still days that are painful. Some days, I was screaming at 'Vogter,' because it felt like he was going to snap my arm off, but that's just part of it. I've actually got a lot more respect for guys who've gone through surgery."
He also picked up a great motivator, back when the league released the 2017-18 schedule and the Jackets' opening-night matchup against the Red Wings - who feature Werenski's longtime friend, forward Dylan Larkin.
"Obviously, I'm not going to play in a game if I'm not ready, but that's kind of my goal and I think that got me through a lot of it, just knowing that, 'Suffer now, but I'm going to be able to play in my hometown on opening night in front of my family and friends,'" Werenski said. "That's one thing that definitely helped me. Once I saw that, it gave me that extra motivation to come back and be healthy as quick as I can."