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Zach Werenski leading charge for Blue Jackets

Rookie defenseman playing huge role in Columbus' resurgence

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- In a young season that has often been a highlight show of the NHL's wealth of young talent, Columbus Blue Jackets rookie defenseman Zach Werenski has been flying under the radar.

No doubt you've heard about Auston Matthews' four-goal debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs, or Patrik Laine's hat tricks with the Winnipeg Jets, Connor McDavid's blazing speed and quick hands for the up-and-coming Edmonton Oilers, Mitchell Marner getting Maple Leafs fans out of their seats by deking out Florida Panthers goalie James Reimer, and Jimmy Vesey's impressive start with the New York Rangers.

But Werenski has quietly gone about his business in helping the Blue Jackets put last season's nightmare behind them with a 10-4-2 start. The 19-year-old got his ninth assist in a 3-2 win against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Sunday.

"I think that's one of our bigger wins as of late, especially on the road," Werenski said. "That's a big road win for us. It's always good when you came come into somebody else's building and get two points, especially in your own division."

After going 34-40-8 and finishing 27th in the League standings last season, the Blue Jackets have been one of the NHL's biggest surprises. They have won four in a row and are 8-1-1 in their past 10 games. That includes two wins against the Capitals and a victory against the Metropolitan Division-leading New York Rangers in the past six days.

"It's fun to be a part of a winning team," Werenski said. "The locker room has been great. The mood has been pretty good."

Video: WSH@CBJ: Werenski beats Grubauer to even game in 3rd

Werenski has been a big part of that. Through his first 16 games, he has 14 points. That puts him one point behind Shea Weber of the Montreal Canadiens for the NHL lead among defensemen.

Among rookies, he is four points back of Laine, who has 12 goals and six assists, for the League lead.

"He's a difference maker without a doubt," Blue Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky said. "Sometimes it looks like he's casual, but he's just so smooth. He's poised with the puck. He just looks like a seasoned vet out there. His confidence is sky high and I don't think you're ever going to change that just because of his temperament, the way he is. He's quiet, reserved, confident and, obviously, a [heck] of a hockey player."

Against the Capitals on Sunday, Werenski played a game-high 24:08, had two shots on goal and blocked two shots, which is always important on a John Tortorella-coached team. Tortorella clearly trusts him.

Werenski ranks second on the Blue Jackets behind the injured Seth Jones in averaging 22:09 in ice time per game.

"The thing that has impressed me the most about him is he's a bit unflappable," Tortorella said. "He's made a couple of huge mistakes in a game and he comes to the bench, shakes it off and then goes out and makes a great play. For a 19-year-old playing that position and the amount of time he's getting in key situations with this organization, it's pretty impressive."

When the Blue Jackets went on the power play with 1:34 remaining in a game tied 2-2 on Sunday, Tortorella sent out Werenski as the lone defenseman with four forwards for the man-advantage. When the puck squirted back to Werenski at the left point, he quickly sent it across to Sam Gagner at the other point. Gagner then fed Nick Foligno, who set up Alexander Wennberg for the winning goal with 53.6 seconds left.

Video: CBJ@WSH: Wennberg finishes pretty passing play in 3rd

Werenski, who assisted on Foligno's power-play goal in the second period, has three goals and four assists on the power play this season. Although he didn't get an assist on Wennberg's game-winner, he played a key role and has helped transform the Blue Jackets power play; they lead the NHL with a 31.8 percent success rate after ranking 21st in the League at 17.3 percent last season.

"You have to give him a lot of credit for how our power play has improved here, the way he runs it," Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "I've always been a big believer that unless you have a really good quarterback on the blue line, it's hard to have a real good power play and he's been very good so far on the blue line and I think that's a big factor in helping our power play."

This is what Kekalainen was hoping for when he selected Werenski with the eighth pick at the 2015 NHL Draft. Kekalainen tried to trade up in the first round, but felt good about getting Werenski, who headed back to the University of Michigan for another season before turning pro last spring.

"There's always a price to moving up and the price for us, believing we were going to get the guy at 8 that we liked a lot, wasn't worth moving up," Kekalainen said. "So sometimes the best deals are the ones you don't make."

The Werenski pick went unheralded that draft day with McDavid going first to the Oilers and Jack Eichel being selected second by the Buffalo Sabres. The Maple Leafs' selection of Marner at No. 4 also got more attention, but if that sets a trend for Werenski's career, he's fine with that.

Video: STL@CBJ: Werenski smokes a power-play goal in the 3rd

"I don't really mind it," he said. "I feel like I can just go out there and play my game and not really think about that stuff."

In fact, Werenski said he is "rooting for" all the League's young players to do well.

"I know a lot of the guys from playing with and playing against them," he said. "I'm rooting for them to do really well. It's fun to keep tabs on them and see how they're doing. It's cool to see."

Kekalainen doesn't mind Werenski getting overshadowed by the bigger name young players either.

"That's great," Kekalainen said. "He's played a lot, he's playing with big responsibility, and he's a big part of the success of our power play. If he's flying under the radar, for me and for a young guy, that's perfect."

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