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NHL Draft memories: Zach Werenski

Surprise choice has worked out well for Blue Jackets defenseman

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

It could have been awkward. 

Say, if Zach Werenski had noticed the Columbus Blue Jackets were on the clock at the 2015 NHL draft, and Werenski had taken the time to find a snack, chug a bottle of water or even sneak in a restroom break. 

OK, those options might not have been on the table, as the University of Michigan defenseman figured to be one of the top picks in the draft. But when the Blue Jackets came up with the eighth pick, Werenski hadn't figured to hear his name. 

"It was kind of funny because Columbus showed no real interest in me at all prior to the draft, so when they were picking at 8, I was like, 'OK, I'm probably not going to go here,'" he said recently as he looked back on his draft day.  

"Then my name gets called and it's kind of a whirlwind." 

DRAFT CENTRAL: Follow along with all the Blue Jackets picks

The irony is that Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, on the other hand, felt confident his team would be able to nab the Michigander with its pick. Maybe it was the ultimate slow play, but Columbus had zeroed in on the puck-moving Werenski in the leadup to the draft held in Florida. 

"I think we felt that he had a big upside with his offensive skills in general as a skilled offensive defenseman, and that's what we got," Kekalainen said. "We felt pretty confident, actually, that we would get him where we had our pick. Sometimes it works out that way. Sometimes guys get taken right before your pick … but we felt all along that we would get Zach at 8 if we were to stay there."

Video: Werenski reflects on the 2015 NHL Draft

Indeed, with some notable names still on the table -- like No. 1-rated European skater Mikko Rantanen and high-scoring Canadian prospects Mathew Barzal and Jake DeBrusk, to name a few -- the Blue Jackets saw fit to take Werenski, just 17 at the time but with a year of college hockey under his belt.

Of course, it's fair to say things have worked out for both sides. After one more year at U-M, in which he was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and helped the Wolverines to one win away from the Frozen Four, Werenski signed with Columbus. 

Immediately, he was a key cog in a Lake Erie Monsters team that won the Calder Cup that spring, chipping in 14 points in 17 games. A year later, he was a record-breaking rookie for the Blue Jackets, blowing past team records with 47 points in 78 games in his first year. And since, he's improved as a two-way player while continuing to score at a high level. 

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen doesn't discuss what other prospects were on the Blue Jackets board at the time - professional courtesy, after all - but he will confirm Columbus brass saw the potential in Werenski that has turned into production at the NHL level. 

"We saw him at World Juniors, we saw him a lot of different places over the years," he said. "The year he played after the draft (at Michigan), we were very excited, then when he went to Cleveland and won the championship there, that was like, 'Whoa.' That was the moment where you were like, 'You know what? He's going to be an impact player for us right away.' And he was." 

For his part, Werenski -- who lived last season in Columbus with his brother, Brad, and has his home base of suburban Detroit just about three hours away -- said the pick "couldn't have worked out any better." 

And for those who are about to get drafted this weekend, it's a memory that won't fade over the years. 

"It's a pretty exciting day," he said. "The night before, it's kind of hard to sleep a little bit, then you wake up in the morning and you're so excited to find out who you finally going to and what team you're going to play for. 

"There's a lot of unknowns on draft day, where you're going to end up and where you're going to play hockey, but it's a ton of fun. It's one of the best days. It's awesome." 

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