For the Columbus Blue Jackets, Monday was a good day.
Not just because of the Zach Werenski contract news -- the Blue Jackets have inked the defenseman, who had been a restricted free agent, to a three-year contract -- but what it represents.
It's another piece of the team's young core in place, and the plan for success in Columbus is to keep building and adding to a core that has led the team to three consecutive playoff appearances.
"The core is in place, and we keep building around it," general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "Those are some of the best young players in the league that we have in Zach and Seth (Jones) and Pierre-Luc (Dubois) and Josh Anderson and so forth. And then we have the experienced players to add leadership, so we are confident in our core group."
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With Werenski signed, Columbus now has 16 players who earned NHL minutes a year ago under contract for at least the next two seasons, a list that doesn't include such highly touted youngsters as 2018 first-round draft pick Liam Foudy, Swedish rookie Emil Bemstrom and high-scoring junior standout Trey Fix-Wolansky, all of whom have entry-level deals through 2021-22.
It's a list that includes such players as Werenski, Jones, Cam Atkinson, Gustav Nyquist, Boone Jenner and Markus Nutivaara, all of whom are signed for the next three seasons.
A number of others including Dubois and Anderson are restricted free agents as well after the coming season, with Columbus sitting in the driver's seat to sign those players to extensions as well. In other words, the future is bright for what was the NHL's youngest team going into last season.
Werenski is a key piece of the puzzle as well as one of the top young offensive defensemen in the league. He blew away Columbus rookie records as a 19-year-old three years ago, posting an 11-36-47 line for a team that returned to the playoffs after a two-year absence.
Werenski added a career-high 16 goals two seasons ago despite battling a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. A year ago, he was challenged to improve his defensive game and did so while still posting an 11-33-44 line that placed him 22nd in scoring among NHL blue liners and sixth all-time in single-season points for a CBJ defenseman.
But to Kekalainen, what stood out was how he played down the stretch with the Blue Jackets battling for a playoff spot. In the final 12 games of the regular season, Werenski had a 2-6-8 line, was plus-2, and played almost 24 minutes per game. He was also impressive during the playoffs, posting a 1-5-6 line in 10 games and a plus-3 rating while playing 26:37 per game and turning heads across the league while paired with Jones.
"I think the biggest excitement that I've seen in his improvement is the way he played in the playoffs last year," Kekalainen said. "I think even in the games that were the crunch time games leading into the playoffs where we had to win those games to make it, he was one guy who seemed very poised and confident in his game.
"That part of his game has really been coming in the last season where he's really improved defensively and he's still the same player offensively. The thing that impressed me was he was at his best when the games mattered the most."
Werenski hopes to keep getting even better going forward, and there's no reason he shouldn't be able to. The game often slows down for defensemen as they get older, and Werenski was able to get in a full offseason of work this summer. That's something that didn't happen a year ago as he had surgery on the shoulder and spent his summer months rehabbing.
"I think that's one of the most exciting parts of our group is that they are so young," Kekalainen said. "There should be multiple levels that he can still improve on and keep building his career. There's no question in my mind he will be a great player in this league for many, many years to come."