SUNRISE, Fla. – Zach Werenski walked into the family and friends hospitality area at BB&T Center as the “longest day of (his) life” wound down, turned a corner, and then got one of the more rousing receptions of the night.
About a dozen of his closest friends wasted no time mobbing him like a baseball player who just hit the walk-off shot, celebrating in ensemble a defining moment in their friend’s life that signaled the start of a new chapter. Many of Werenski’s friends were wearing Blue Jackets hats not even an hour after hopping on board with one of their new favorite teams.
“We’ve bought every single Blue Jackets hat in this arena,” his mother, Kristen, joked.
Werenski, who at 17 was the youngest player in NCAA Division I hockey this season, was elated to be picked at No. 8 overall by the Blue Jackets, and the feeling was mutual.
He was quite high on their master list, and at several different moments early in the first round, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen could be seen either on the phone or visiting with a team who had a pick just before theirs, doing whatever he could to make sure he would have the pick to draft Werenski.
“We got two good young defensemen (along with Gabriel Carlsson, picked at No. 29) growing in our system and we have a lot of forwards, so yeah, we feel good about it,” Kekalainen said. “This is what our goal was before today and we accomplished our goal, so we’re pretty happy right now.”
Kekalainen was unable to complete a deal to move up to No. 3 overall (same for every other team in that mix), and with the price for pick No. 4 too high and pick No. 5 “not for sale,” he then focused on the No. 6 pick held by the New Jersey Devils.
He held discussions with Devils GM Ray Shero but nothing materialized. To the delight of both the Blue Jackets and Werenski, things fell into place when the Flyers took Ivan Provorov at No. 7.
|SUNRISE, FL - Zach Werenski poses after being selected eighth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft at BB&T Center on June 26, 2015 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) |
“It’s kind of a relief, I guess, and it’s the right place I wanted to be picked, so it’s perfect,” Werenski said. “I wasn’t really sure what to expect coming into this, but I’m pretty happy with how it worked out.”
Werenski’s resume may be in its early stages, but he’s done some impressive things before being of legal age to cast a vote. He accelerated his high school education and graduated early so he could enroll early at the University of Michigan and play for legendary coach Red Berenson’s program.
Also of note: he’s from the same hometown (Grosse Pointe, Mich.) as Blue Jackets forward Corey Tropp, who ironically played his college hockey at Michigan’s chief rival, Michigan State.
Werenski grew up watching Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson, a poster child for the Michigan program, play for the Wolverines and ever since, he’s tried model his game after him.
He’s got size (6-foot-2 and about 210 pounds), an offensive touch and the ability to transport the puck and play a 200-foot game. The Blue Jackets liked a lot of what they saw throughout the draft year – more than enough to elevate Werenski high up on their list of targets – but one of the exciting things about him is that they believe there’s plenty of room to grow.
As of now, the plan for Werenski is to return to Ann Arbor for his sophomore season, but he will sit down with Blue Jackets management and go over a plan in the near future.
“There’s so much to like about his game,” Blue Jackets director of amateur scouting Paul Castron said. “First off, he’s a thick kid and he’s really strong, too. He’s a great skater, he sees the ice well, he can play in all situations and run your power play – and we see him doing that for us in the future. He’ll continue to grow. He still needs some coaching on the defensive side, but he will get that and it’s going to make him even better.”