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Werenski has blossomed into one of the league's best

Blue Jackets standout excellent on both sides of the ice during hot streak

by Jeffrey Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Zach Werenski still remembers where he was when John Tortorella brought up the topic. 

It was a morning skate in Montreal on Nov. 12. The Blue Jackets were about to face the Canadiens, and simply put, the team wasn't scoring enough goals to win hockey games. 

There, a little more than a month into the season, Tortorella told Werenski and Seth Jones that he trusted the team's top blue line pair to get the job done defensively. Now, the two outstanding defensemen needed to do something to add to the team's offense. 

"He came up to me and Jonesy and said, 'We're not scoring right now. Go play offense,'" Werenski recalled. "(He said), 'We know you're going to do your work defensively, but try to create some spark from the back end.'" 

It might be oversimplifying things to point to that conversation as a turning point for the Blue Jackets standout, but the stats make a compelling case. 

Since then, in 21 games on the ice when not dealing with a shoulder injury that kept him out just over two weeks, Werenski has 10 goals and 11 assists for 21 points, helping Columbus find its offense and rocketing him to tops among league defensemen in goals.  

Video: FLA@CBJ: Werenski earns first career NHL hat trick

His recent hot streak is nothing short of historic -- he is just one of three defensemen in the past decade to score at least five goals in a three-game span, and he is just one of three blueliners since 1967 to have three multigoal games in a five-game span. 

The others? Paul Coffey and Bobby Orr. Both have their names in the Hockey Hall of Fame. 

It's too early to say that's where Werenski is headed, but he's putting up numbers that are nothing short of impressive. Already the Blue Jackets' career leader in goals for a defenseman despite being in just his fourth season -- he's now run away with that title -- he's cementing himself as one of the top offensive defensemen in the NHL with four seasons with double-digit goals in four tries. 

It's exactly what Werenski wanted when he came into this season. After a trying but educational year a season ago, he went into this offseason with some goals.  

Keep being a force defensively, something he grew into a season ago. Add more offensively, a laudable but hard-to-reach goal considering how good he had already been. And become more of a leader, something that doesn't come naturally but is shown through his play. 

So far, so good. It's just like he planned. 

"When I got into the league, it was Jonesy's fourth year, and I remember how he took off his fourth year," Werenski said. "I kind of knew this year I wanted to do something similar and take off this year. I was done with my entry-level (deal). I was on my second contract. I felt like I was more of a leader in this room - I'm never going to be a guy that says much in the room, but in terms of play. 

"I wanted to be someone that took off this year and prove to everyone that it was my fourth year and I'm a good player in this league. I'm only halfway done with the year, so I have a long way to go, but I think I've made strides in that area." 

A continued improvement 

If you look back to the end of last season, though, it shouldn't be a huge surprise Werenski is off to such a good start. 

It's no secret last year was a struggle at times for Werenski. He had to spend the summer before the season rehabbing a shoulder injury he nursed through the entire 2017-18 campaign, so he wasn't able to train in the offseason quite like he wanted to. Early in the year, he was split up from Jones, and Tortorella wasn't shy about pointing out Werenski needed to get better defensively. 

Then came the month of March. As the Blue Jackets battled for a playoff spot, Werenski was at his best. In a 12-game stretch from March 9 through the end of the month, he notched two goals with seven assists for nine points to go with a plus-5 mark. To those watching, the Michigander was playing his best hockey. 

That continued into the playoffs. Werenski and Jones as a duo turned heads across the league, matching up against some of the best players in the NHL and looking impressive doing it. He also made CBJ history by becoming the first player in franchise postseason history to notch a Gordie Howe hat trick in the Game 2 win vs. Tampa Bay. 

"I worked hard on the defensive side of the game, and I think last year, the second half of the year, I showed that I made big strides defensively, especially in the playoffs," he said. "Me and Jonesy were playing against Kucherov and Stamkos and Marchand and Pastrnak, some of the best guys in the league. I think at that point, I proved to myself, I proved to the coaches and teammates I could handle that part of the game and then balance out the offensive side with it." 

From the second Werenski stepped onto the ice as an NHL player, he was a gifted offensive talent. In his rookie season, he broke the franchise record for points as a rookie -- for all players, not just defensemen -- with 47 (11 goals, 36 assists). A year later, he notched 16 goals to re-set the franchise record for goals in a season among blueliners, tying Jones that campaign. 

But Brad Shaw, who coaches the team's defensemen, sees someone who has come a long way at the other end of the ice. 

"He has an ability to defend now against top players," Shaw said. "He always had the ability to create offense at that elite level. I think he's getting his all-around game much closer to that, as well. I think he's always going to be an offense-first guy, a skater first, a puck-mover first.  

"That's always going to be his biggest impact wherever he is and how long he plays this game, but his ability to defend allows me, as his coach, to put him out in more situations and feel comfortable knowing that the job's going to get done." 

Always a talent 

The Blue Jackets drafted Werenski at No 8 overall in the 2015 draft, and players who get selected that high in the NHL draft are chosen because of tremendously unique abilities. 

For Werenski, those gifts are offensive. Simply put, he can do things -- a fantastic shot, great skating ability, and vision and anticipation to get to dangerous spots on the ice -- on the ice others can't.  

Those abilities immediately made him a standout player when he arrived in Columbus. But as the league does with all players, it started to adjust once it saw Werenski's game at the NHL level.  

"His ability to surprise guys … you know, he would drop a shoulder and skate around a guy when 99 percent of the rest of the D in the league would just pass it," Shaw said. "Well teams are ready for that now. So, he's got to adjust now to teams adjusting for him. That's a bit of a process, as well. How do you maintain that elite status? How do you keep your game there, without losing track of what makes you good in the first place?" 

That makes what Werenski went through in recent seasons just a part of the game. As the game has adjusted to him, he's adjusted back to it. He's gotten stronger, faster, and is now primed to be in the conversation with among the best defensemen in the league. 

"I think in both areas, offensively and defensively, I think he's been much more consistent," head coach John Tortorella said. "He's been very aggressive offensively here probably the last five or six weeks. I'm watching the tape, he makes these little five-foot plays getting us out of our end zone. A lot of times you just look at his legs, how he skates it out, but he is so confident in his game right now that he's making these five-foot backhand plays, forehand plays, little shovel plays just to get us out of the end zone. 

"He has grown and he's maturing. I think him and I went through a process for about a year and a half as far as where we go defensively and offensively. He's more healthy -- although he got banged up this year -- I think he just feels better. He's progressing into who knows where he's going to end up as he keeps pushing along." 

During his hot streak, Werenski hasn't been afraid to read the rush or jump into the play offensively, allowing him to get to places on the ice where he can score goals. Defensively, teams have averaged just 1.08 goals per 60 minutes with Werenski on the ice during the last 16 games, a stretch in which Columbus is 10-2-4.  

Will the startling numbers on both sides of the ice continue? Probably not quite at that level; that's just how the sport goes. But Werenski feels like he's playing at a level where he should continue to be a difference maker for the Blue Jackets. 

"I don't know if every 20 games I'll have 10 goals, 10 assists and 20 points," he said, "but I think I'm a player that realizes the better you are defensively, the more chances you get offensively. I've bought into that this year. I'm trying my best to be good defensively and be hard to play against, and that's just opened up my offensive abilities. 

"It's something I wanted to do this year is prove to myself mainly that I can play well on both sides of the puck and help this team win in any aspect, and if I get on the score sheet - which it has been lately - then I'm going to do that, and if it's playing good defensively I'm going to do that as well." 

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