Chris Chelios knows a little something about what it takes to be an NHL defenseman.
The Hockey Hall of Famer played a mind-boggling 26 seasons in the NHL, winning three Norris Trophies as the League’s top defenseman and establishing himself as perhaps the best American-born hockey player ever.
So when Chelios, currently age 53, is impressed by a young defenseman, it means something. Chelios coached the United States’ defensemen at the Evaluation Camp for the 2016 World Junior Championships in Lake Placid, and was particularly impressed by 2015 Blue Jackets first-round draft pick Zach Werenski.
“He’s done everything right (in camp),” Chelios said of Werenski. “He keeps the play simple – a real steady eddy. Probably one of the top guys as far as being consistent every game. Like I said, he’s doing everything right. There’s not one bad thing you can say about his game.”
Chelios wasn’t the only one in Lake Placid this week impressed by Werenski. Fellow Blue Jackets draftees Sonny Milano and Ryan Collins, also participants in Evaluation Camp and candidates to make Team USA, also took notice of their fellow Columbus prospect.
“He’s a really poised d-man,” Milano said. “Man, he’s really smart. Every time he gets the puck, he gets it out of the zone with a good pass. A solid all-around player.”
“He’s really, really steady,” Collins added. “He seems very comfortable out here. Seeing him play, you cannot help but expect a lot from him.”
The highlight of Werenski’s camp experience was an overtime goal to lift the United States past Finland by neatly jumping into the rush and precisely depositing a pass from teammate Brock Boeser past Minnesota Wild prospect Kaapo Kahkonen, who was in goal for Finland.
“My first overtime goal ever,” Werenski said. “It might only be the summer, but I’ll take it.”
Werenski has a few weeks left at home in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and a vacation with his family to the state’s northern peninsula before arriving for his sophomore year at the University of Michigan later this month.
At school, Werenski’s goals this season seem to be simple. He wants to get the Wolverines back into the NCAA tournament after a disappointing 2014-15 season saw Michigan finish behind the University of Minnesota and Michigan State in the six-team Big Ten.
On a personal level, Werenski will work with recently retired NHL defenseman Mike Komisarek on building off his freshman season where he scored 25 points (9g, 15a) in 35 games and was named to the Big Ten’s All-Freshman Team.
“It’s huge,” Werenski said of his relationship with Komisarek. “He’s fresh out of the NHL. He’s a physical defenseman and that physicality is something I am trying to add to my game. Being around someone like that, it’s a huge help for me.
“I don’t think I am ever one to go out there and blow someone up at center ice. But I do want to be more physical and more engaged. I want to take the guy when it’s necessary.”
Does He Or Doesn’t He?
As soon as you see a player in the Blue Jackets system wearing a Michigan Wolverines sweater, it’s almost not impossible not to think of Jack Johnson, who starred in Ann Arbor from 2005-07.
With Werenski and Johnson sharing such an obvious bond, the question has to be asked: ‘Do Werenski and Johnson know each other yet?’
“I’ve met him a few times,” Werenski said. “I think we met at a Michigan football game. That’s it so far. Don’t know him too well.”
If Werenski keeps developing at his current rate, it’s a pretty safe bet to make that he’ll get to know Johnson much more in the near future.