As Jarmo Kekalainen, John Davidson and the Blue Jackets brain trust met over the past few weeks to plan what would be next for the team, there were lots of sets of eyes on the general manager, the president of hockey operations and the rest of the CBJ front office.
The 5th Line waited with bated breath to see how Columbus would react to missing the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, especially with news filtering out that star defenseman Seth Jones was likely to explore the free agent market and become the latest core player to leave the team. The entire hockey world also wondered what was next, trying to figure out what would be up the decision makers' sleeves with the pressure on.
But there was one set of eyes that was probably more important than either of those, and it belonged to Zach Werenski.
With one year left on his current contract and two years away from unrestricted free agency, the All-Star defenseman acknowledged he opened this offseason in wait-and-see mode. But as the Blue Jackets made three lauded first-round draft picks, acquired two promising young defensemen, brought in veteran Jake Voracek and locked up Boone Jenner long-term over the past week, it's fair to say Werenski liked what he saw.
Video: Z's excited about coaching staff
The six-year, $57.5 million extension he signed Thursday, then, is the proof in the pudding.
"I really wasn't sure what was going to happen," Werenski said Friday. "That's why I wanted to sit back and wait to see what happened. Obviously I liked their first pick, the Michigan kid, Kent Johnson. I kept watching, kept hearing good things, saw the trades, the players they brought in and I saw the plan moving the right way and I wanted to be a part of it. I'm just really excited and I fully believe in it."
The commitment, then, goes both ways, a moment of harmony between the CBJ front office and one of its best players and cornerstone pillars. The phrase Kekalainen used repeatedly on Friday was "building the right way," as the Blue Jackets have entered a different era after saying goodbye to many pieces of the squad that made those four straight playoff appearances from 2017-20 and earned postseason series wins vs. Tampa Bay and Toronto.
Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky, Seth Jones and Alexander Wennberg are all in the top 10 in points in franchise history and all took part in the series win vs. Tampa Bay -- and are all gone, as are such standouts as the exciting Artemi Panarin, two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky and the dependable David Savard.
The window to win which such players clearly closed, though, and Kekalainen sees the chance to build an even better group anchored by someone like Werenski, not to mention Jenner, the team's other young talents and those first-round picks from Friday night like Kent Johnson, Cole Sillinger and Corson Ceulemans.
Video: Jarmo Media Avail
"We had some really good success with the group that we had here," Kekalainen said. "The core pieces that we had here, we got into the playoffs four times in a row and got a little bit of playoff success as well, but we haven't had any parades here so we had to make changes. Sometimes they are hard because it's emotional to make those decisions to part with players that have been an important part of your plan here. But if you want to get to the ultimate goal, you are going to have to make changes sometimes that are hard. That's what we've done.
"We have a plan. We are going to build it the right way and get back to the playoffs and be a Stanley Cup contender and ultimately win it."
And with this deal, Kekalainen also has made it clear that perhaps the most important part is Werenski, a 24-year-old standout who already has led NHL defensemen in goals in a season and also holds the franchise record for goals from the blue line. The annual cap hit for Werenski's deal will make him the third-highest paid defenseman in the NHL, not to mention serve as the highest-ever cap hit for a Blue Jackets player.
You also get what you pay for, though, and Werenski is third in the NHL in goals from the blue line since debuting in the 2016-17 season and has proved to be someone who can handle elite minutes, play in all situations and make the players around him better.
"I think Zach Werenski has shown over his whole career that he's among the elite defensemen in the league, and he is a clear No. 1 for us now," Kekalainen said. "He can keep growing in that role. He is still young and keeps getting better. He has done everything right with us since ever since he joined our organization. …
"He's played with a broken face, through injuries, competed hard every night. Last year he played with an injury that he was basically playing with one leg before we were out of the playoffs and then he decided to have the surgery. I couldn't have more respect for a guy like that that has always given us all he's got and he keeps improving. He's a leader. He's done everything right, he keeps doing everything right, and we value him as a franchise defenseman."
Video: Zach Media Avail
The next step in Werenski's evolution will come in two ways this upcoming season. First, with big commitments come big responsibility, and the defenseman who leads by example will be counted on to fill a leadership role like never before after the trades of such veterans as Foligno, Atkinson, Savard and Jones.
He will also be under a bit of a microscope playing for the first time without Jones, as the two more often than not have been a defensive pairing since Werenski stepped onto NHL ice five years ago. But Werenski also sees that situation as an opportunity.
"Me and Seth ever since I joined the league played together," Werenski said. "He's one of my best friends and obviously I wish him nothing but the best in Chicago, but I am ready. I am ready to be a true No. 1 and show everyone what I can do without him. I feel like every time I was brought up, it was always with him, and maybe vice versa, but I am just really excited to have this opportunity."
With 65 goals and 189 points in 335 games so far in union blue, the Michigan native is already one of the top defensemen to wear the CBJ sweater. Now, he has the chance to do it for the next seven years, and it appears there's no place he'd rather be.
"First and foremost, I love Columbus," Werenski said. "It's kind of where I grew up. I've spent my whole career here and it's been nothing but good to me and my family. It's a place that I've always enjoyed, so obviously I'm extremely happy to be there for seven more years. … This is where I want to be. I'm happy in Columbus. It's been good to me. Why would I want to leave?"