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Werenski in midst of historic season for Blue Jackets

Defensemen had high hopes going into year, then set franchise goal marks from blue line

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

The list of NHL defensemen to score 20 goals in the past five seasons isn't very long. 

Brent Burns has done it twice, notching 27 tallies in 2015-16 and then going up to 29 goals a year later. Both Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Mark Giordano had 21 in 2015-16, while Shea Weber had 20 that year. Then last year, Morgan Rielly landed at 20 goals on the nose. 

Then there's Zach Werenski. The Blue Jackets blueliner has pulled away from the field this year, leading all NHL defensemen by four goals by getting to 20 tallies this year.  

It has been a historic season in Blue Jackets annals considering he not only set the franchise record for goals in a season, he also set the team mark for career goals from the blue line, racing away from teammates Seth Jones and David Savard as well as former Jackets Rostislav Klesla and Fedor Tyutin. 

Video: VAN@CBJ: Werenski hammers one-timer home for PPG

Who could have seen such a memorable campaign coming? 

Well, we don't want to say Werenski necessarily did. Then again, he didn't exactly shy away from the fact he expected to have a big 2019-20 season. 

"I have goals going into each year that I set for myself," Werenski recently told BlueJackets.com. "Obviously you have to take every game and every season in stride. You never know what is going to happen, you never know what a team is going to do or whatnot.  

"Twenty goals was a number I thought I could hit. Whether it was 17 or 19 or 22, I don't really know, but that was the kind of number I wanted to get near. Scoring 20, that has a lot to do with your teammates. I have said this before, but it seems like I'm just getting ice and they're finding me and pucks are finding me. I've been pretty fortunate this year with that." 

That little bit of modesty is peak Werenski, whose pulse likely changes no more than a beat or two in any game. He's never too high or too low and has a calm to his game that belies how hard a competitor he is, and he has an elite shot and the confidence to go forward with his legs that puts him in offensive positions that other blueliners just can't get to.  

All that makes him one of the elite defensemen in the league when it comes to scoring, as only six defensemen in the NHL have 10-plus goals in each of the past four seasons -- Werenski, Burns, Alex Pietrangelo, Roman Josi, Dougie Hamilton and Victor Hedman. In that span, Werenski's 58 goals tie Pietrangelo for third in the league from the blue line. 

Making it all the more impressive is that Werenski is just 22, the youngest player in that group by four years. Making it even more impressive? Werenski suffered a shoulder injury midway through his sophomore campaign in the NHL yet still put 16 goals in the net. Then last year, after offseason shoulder surgery, he felt like he was behind from the get-go and finished with 11 goals, a total that likely would have been higher had he had a summer to train. 

In other words, he felt good going into this year. He was healthy, had a full offseason of training and signed a new three-year contract going into the campaign, setting himself up for a huge campaign. 

Video: CBJ@MIN: Werenski dekes, rips shot past Stalock

"It's one of those things where I had a summer to work on this stuff," he said. "My second year, I went through the shoulder injury then shoulder surgery. I didn't have any time to train last summer, so I felt like I was behind coming into the season. I knew having a full summer was going to benefit me.  

"I think just working on my shot, working on getting in scoring areas, just better conditioned -- I feel better this year on the ice, playing bigger minutes in all situations, so I think summer definitely helped me being healthy and coming into the season." 

Head coach John Tortorella calls Werenski "a hell of an offensive player that's just growing as a player," someone who is becoming a complete player as his career goes on. Werenski's offensive talents have always been known and are what made him a first-round draft pick in 2015 -- after starring for U.S. Under-18 teams growing up, he had 20 goals and 61 points in two seasons as a 17- and 18-year-old with the University of Michigan -- but Tortorella has some admiration for how his defensive game has come along over the past few seasons. 

And now, he sees a player who can get it done on both sides of the ice. But it's that off-the-charts offensive skill that makes Werenski one of the most unique and exciting players in the league. 

"He's been a big part of our offense," Tortorella said. "I think he's getting better and better at understanding when to go and when not to go. He's a big part of our offense. I shudder to thik where our offense would be without what he's done. … There's no question he is hitting the net more and I think that was a big part of a weakness in his game was he didn't really understand or really feel the importance of hitting the net." 

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