The Blue Jackets challenged their defensive corps to play with speed and an offensive mindset last season, and the team's top pairing of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski were a huge part of that style of play coming to life successfully.
"You look at Seth's numbers this year, you look at Zach's numbers this year, they are unbelievable," Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "I don't think you can find a better 1-2 punch around the league. I would be very comfortable comparing those two guys to anybody's D, and they're only going to get better."
Paired together to start of the season, Werenski's dynamic offensive abilities coupled with Jones' skill and 300-plus NHL game experience made them a formidable team. The two found a quick chemistry that only deepened as the season went on.
"It's nice to have a guy that's still only 22 and has played in almost 300 games," Werenski said. "You feel really comfortable around (Jones) just because you're so close in age. Being a young guy and playing with someone like Seth who has been around the block, played six playoff games in Nashville, played in the World Cup, he's such a vet for such a young age. It's easy to interact with him and talk with him."
And for Jones, playing with Werenski was something he found motivating for his own play. Just 19 years old when the season started, the Michigan native was a pace setter for how the defense played.
"(Werenski) has been unbelievable for our team," Jones said. "The way Zach plays, the team plays for the most part. He deserves all the recognition he's been getting offensively and defensively. I've even been learning some things from him this year. His potential's through the roof."
And the two didn't just learn from one another, they developed a friendship that both believe helped grow their abilities together on the ice. And the proof was in what they each accomplished in their play.
Jones put up the highest point total of his NHL career (12-30-42) and was 19th overall among NHL defensemen in total points, 17th in goals by a defenseman and was named to the 2017 NHL All-Star roster. According to firstlinestats.com, among all Blue Jackets players who played in five or more games, he was fourth overall in Corsi for (58.7%) and fifth in scoring chances for (52.9). So when Jones was on the ice, he was a huge piece of getting his team in a position to score.
While driving offense, Jones also improved his ability to limit shots by opponents. In Corsi against per 60, he improved from 62.63 (2015-16) to 52.43 last season. Jones was doing a better job at ensuring teams facing the Jackets got off fewer shot attempts.
READ: JACKETS DEFENSE TO BUILD ON SOLID 2017-17 CAMPAIGN
And then there was Werenski.
The Calder Trophy finalist burst onto the NHL scene in a 78-game regular season that saw him put up 47 points and ink his name multiple times in Jackets' franchise record books.
"Where would we be without him?" assistant coach Brad Shaw said. "He's made key plays at key moments in games. His emergence and contribution has been outstanding. One of the hardest things to do is contribute to the offense on a consistent basis. It's a very rare thing to do what he's done so far."
Underlying Werenski's point totals was not just his own ability to score, but to help his teammates. In addition to leading all Jackets players in Corsi for last season (60.1%), according to passing project data assembled by Ryan Stimson, in five-on-five play among NHL defensemen with 400-plus minutes of ice time, Werenski ranked 11th in primary shot contributions (18.70) and 22nd in total shot contributions (23.63).
And after such a season, the future looks bright for two players who have yet to reach age 23.
"I think they are going to at least get a level or two better," Kekalainen said. "Both of those guys are hungry, both of those guys are driven, both of those guys are ambitious and they are anxious to get going again. Both of those guys have tremendous potential as leaders and take more of a responsibility in that front as well. I'm so excited about our defense."