It seemed like everything came easy for Zach Werenski for much of last year.
The standout Blue Jackets defenseman had a stick that was on fire for much of the season. He entered the year thinking 20 goals was a reasonable expectation and did just that even with the final 11 games of the campaign being canceled. Those 20 tallies led all NHL defensemen and cemented Werenski as one of the top offensive defensemen in the league.
And as so often happens the year after most things go right, this year has been closer to the opposite. Werenski struggled out of the gate, then suffered a lower-body injury that kept him out for a handful of games.
Twenty-six games into Columbus' season, he had played in just 19 of those contests with a 1-6-7 scoring line and minus-6 rating -- numbers that aren't quite what was hoped for from one of the top players in the league.
But Werenski kept his head up through those tough times.
"I think the only thing that was frustrating was the injuries," he said. "I think struggles are going to happen. You can't get frustrated by those. You have to work your way out of them. That happens for all players. I didn't get frustrated by that. I was just working my hardest to get out of it, but I think the injury is the most frustrating thing. You have a long offseason, a weird offseason, you get so excited to play and then 10 games in, you miss seven games. In a shortened season, that's a lot of games. That was frustrating."
If the last few games are any indication, though, the frustrations might be over. Werenski has a four-game point streak highlighted by goals in two straight games, the first an overtime winner late in Saturday's game vs. Dallas and the latter the third-period equalizer in Sunday's rematch against the Stars.
But even more than that, it's the fact that Werenski has been putting himself in more positions to score. Whereas the Blue Jackets got little offensive push from Werenski and longtime defensive partner Seth Jones in the early going -- part of the defensive zone struggles that marked the team's game -- both blueliners have shown their elite skating ability and offensive instincts more often of late by jumping into plays.
It's been happening more and more in recent games, and Werenski finally has started to get the payoff on the scoresheet.
"I think when I get to those scoring areas, it's a good sign that I'm moving my feet, I'm jumping up in the play," he said. "I'm being aggressive. I feel like in the first 10-12 games of the season I wasn't really getting to those scoring areas at all. So for me, it's a step in the right direction. I can keep building on it."
The proof is in the pudding, and it comes with more than just the counting stats. Werenski has played 10 games since returning from that lower-body injury Feb. 25 vs. Chicago, and in those 10 games, he leads the Blue Jackets with a mark of 57.7 percent of expected goals for the team when he's on the ice at 5-on-5, a mark that shows the Jackets are controlling shot quantity and quality when No. 8 has been out there.
Just as importantly, his pairing with Jones has been back near the level the Blue Jackets need it to be to be a true contender. Often called the engine of the team, that duo not only eats up 25 or more minutes per night, their mobility and offensive ability is one of the hallmarks of the way the Jackets have tried to play in recent years.
"So much gets talked about them fairly or unfairly, the players they are, but it's what they bring to the team," captain Nick Foligno said. "They really are the engine back there with the way they can break us out, with the way they can control games. They can settle us down. They can up the pace. It's hard to defend.
"We do it in practice against them and they just slice and dice us all the time. I know what it's like to practice against, so I can imagine in a game how much more confidence we get when we start to see them do that. It opens up plays for us as forwards. I think they're starting to feel more like themselves, and it's huge."
There's an old maxim that teams are only as good as their best players, and the stronger play by such players as Jones and Werenski is one of the reasons the team seems to have steadied its game of late. Now, the Blue Jackets need to rack up wins, and the duo wants to lead the charge.
"Me and Z didn't get off to the greatest start on the season," said Jones, who has added points in 11 of the last 20 games as well. "We're still trying to find consistency in our games, but I think 5-on-5 play, we've done a better job of moving our feet through the neutral zone, trying to keep the pace up for the team and skating the puck. I think our breakouts have been a little bit cleaner, which allows us to get the puck to our forwards in good spots and allows us to play in the offensive zone and be creative and get our feet moving from there.
"We're continuing to want to grow and make this team better."