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Zach Werenski's performance belies his age

19-year-old Blue Jackets defenseman making impact beyond his years

by Dan Rosen @DRosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Zach Werenski isn't lacking for confidence. It's obvious when the Columbus Blue Jackets 19-year-old defenseman gets the puck and looks up. It's obvious when he stands in front of his dressing room stall, skates on, towering over a pair of reporters who are asking him questions.

Werenski, respectful, polite and engaging, owns the interview with his swagger.

When did you first feel like you belonged in the NHL?

"I kind of felt like I always belonged," Werenski said.

Your coach, John Tortorella, called your performance in Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins "inspiring" despite the fact that your team lost 3-1. How do you keep a level head when you hear that praise?

"I've always seemed to have one," Werenski said.

 

[RELATED: Complete Blue Jackets vs. Penguins series coverage]

 

What did going from the University of Michigan to the American Hockey League last season and winning the Calder Cup do for you?

"Playing four rounds, winning a Calder Cup and getting familiar with guys in the Columbus organization really gave me a level of confidence I didn't know I had," Werenski said. "After that it really took off and I felt like I really deserved to play in this league."

Imagine how Werenski's confidence will grow if he can help the Blue Jackets come back in their best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Columbus trails 2-0 going into Game 3 at Nationwide Arena on Sunday (6 p.m. ET; CNBC, SN360, TVA Sports 2, ROOT, FS-O).

Werenski played 51:20 in the two games, an average of 25:40 that's second on the Blue Jackets behind his usual partner, Seth Jones, who's averaging 26:16.

"There's nothing [he does] on the ice that makes me think he's 19," Tortorella said. "That's what's so thrilling about what we have. I watch young kids in the League, some of them you say, 'Man, where are they going?' Sometimes it's almost disrespectful to the League. Zach, that's one of his greatest qualities; he respects the locker room, the hierarchy in there. He respects the game, understands a little bit of the history of the game, which I think we've lost sometimes with some of our young kids. He's become a very good pro in one year that I've seen him. That takes time for me with kids, understanding how to be a pro. He's got it already."

Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno was with the Ottawa Senators when two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson broke into the NHL as a 19-year-old in 2009. Foligno said it's fair to draw a comparison between Werenski now and Karlsson then.

"But I would say truthfully that I think Zach has made more of an impact on our club than Erik did right away," Foligno said. "That's not a knock on Erik. I think he had to figure out coming from Europe how the League worked, but definitely there are some comparisons just in the way they can break games open and take over."

Video: CBJ@PIT, Gm1: Fleury denies Werenski's quick shot

Foligno was as quick to remind us that Werenski is only 19.

"I think even 'Z' is still using the Columbus Blue Jackets' [travel] bag and we tried to get him to get more of an NHL-style bag where it's just a black bag, not your big logo on the side," Foligno said. "That's pretty cute."

Werenski also routinely plays Call of Duty with Toronto Maple Leafs rookie center Auston Matthews, one of his best friends.

"It's brutal," Werenski said, laughing. "He's bad."

Werenski texted with Boston Bruins rookie Charlie McAvoy before he made his NHL debut in Game 1 against the Senators on Wednesday. McAvoy asked Werenski for advice before his first AHL game and did the same before playing Wednesday.

"I couldn't help him there," Werenski said. "He was like, 'I'm a little nervous.' I was like, 'Man, so am I. I've never done this before either."

Now he's done it twice and looked excellent both times. But it's not going to his head.

All the praise, the accolades, the talk about respect for the game, for its history, it matters to him but it doesn't affect how he feels about himself. He's honest with himself.

For example, here's Werenski's assessment of his rookie season:

"I had a pretty good year," he said.

He was first on his team, seventh among all rookies and 13th among all NHL defenseman with 47 points. He was fifth among rookies in average ice time per game (20:54) and total shots on goal (188). He had 21 points on the power play.

"It could have been better," Werenski said. "I wasn't as consistent as I'd like to be. There were probably 16 to 20 games midseason where I didn't play good hockey at all."

But Werenski is still working in the 2016-17 season and still has big plans even though the Blue Jackets trail 2-0 in the series.

"I want to win the Cup," Werenski said. "I think we have a team that can do that."

He watched his hometown team, the Detroit Red Wings, do that three times (1998, 2002, 2008). He wasn't born yet when the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997.

"I think for me and guys that grow up in the Detroit area with the Wings to look up to, it's a storied franchise so you take more pride in the history of the game and knowing what it means," Werenski said. "Obviously here in Columbus it hasn't been around nearly as long so the history isn't as big, but that's a good thing for us. Maybe we can try to make history."

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