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Werenski believes time for young players to step up, lead Blue Jackets

Defenseman confident despite departures of Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, Dzingel

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

MOUNT CLEMENS, Mich. -- Zach Werenski is not focused on what the Columbus Blue Jackets lost. The defenseman is focused on what they gained.

Yes, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and forwards Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel have left as unrestricted free agents. But the decision to keep Bobrovsky and Panarin and add Duchene and Dzingel before the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline will have a lasting impact.

The Blue Jackets won a Stanley Cup Playoff series for the first time since entering the NHL in 2000-01, sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference First Round after the Lightning racked up 128 points, fourth in NHL history. It was a tremendous experience for the fans and the players who remain in Columbus.


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"Oh, a hundred percent," Werenski said at the Eastside Elite All-Star Challenge at Mount Clemens Ice Arena in suburban Detroit on Tuesday.

Werenski, who turned 22 on Friday, grew up in the Detroit area and is playing in the Eastside Elite summer league to prepare for his fourth NHL season.

"We were a young team last year," Werenski said. "We've been a young team all three years I've been in the League. For us to win against one of the best regular-season teams in the history of the NHL, to go out there and not only win but to sweep them and feel like we controlled that series … Obviously we've lost four big pieces of our lineup, but it's at that point now where us young guys, we've got to step up and fill those roles."

The Blue Jackets still have a core of talented players, including Josh Anderson, Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nick Foligno up front and Werenski, Seth Jones and Ryan Murray on the back end. Forward Gustav Nyquist, who went to the Western Conference Final with the San Jose Sharks last season, signed a four-year contract as an unrestricted free agent July 1.

"I think [the UFAs' departures] had nothing to do with the city of Columbus or our fans or anything like that," said Werenski, a restricted free agent himself, whose agent is negotiating with the Blue Jackets. "I just think they were ready for a change, and that's their right. So, you can't be mad at them. But at the end of the day, these are guys who want to be here. We want to win. We're really excited for next season."

Werenski said Anderson could build on the NHL career-high 27 goals and 47 points he had last season, forward Oliver Bjorkstrand (NHL career-high 23 goals last season) could play a bigger role and forward Alexandre Texier could make a difference. Texier, a second-round pick (No. 45) in the 2017 NHL Draft, came over from Finland late last season and played eight playoff games for the Blue Jackets, scoring twice in the 7-3 win that eliminated the Lightning on April 16.

What about the goaltending? In four seasons as Bobrovsky's backup, Joonas Korpisalo never played more than 31 NHL games. Elvis Merzlikins, a third-round pick (No. 76) in the 2014 NHL Draft who is coming over from Switzerland, has never played in North America, let alone the NHL.

"I'm confident in our group, especially in goal," Werenski said. "I mean, we have two goalies that are going to be battling for a No. 1 job. That's healthy competition. Someone's going to have to step up and take that role. It's going to be good.

"There's going to be a lot of guys competing. There's some spots open. I think we have eight [defensemen who] have signed NHL deals right now, so everyone's going to be fighting for ice time. I think it's going to be good for us."

Video: CBJ@TBL, Gm2: Werenski scores off draw on power play

Werenski is eager to play after what will be his first full summer of training in the NHL. After his rookie season, when he was a finalist for the Calder Trophy, he couldn't train for about two months because of an eye injury. After his second season, he didn't start until mid-August because of shoulder surgery.

He struggled early last season because of it, especially in his own end. But Werenski worked with the coaches and improved as the season went along, finishing with 44 points (11 goals, 33 assists). In the Lightning series he matched up against top forwards Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point.

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"I've told myself that how I played in the playoffs is how I want to play as a player in this league," Werenski said. "Our team took a stride forward; I felt like I took a stride forward.

"I think in the playoffs I felt comfortable going out there against Kucherov, Stamkos and Point. I felt confident I had the ability to shut them down. It doesn't happen every time, but I had that confidence where, 'I'm playing my best hockey right now, and I can go out against the best players in the world and play defensively.' "

Werenski started putting on muscle in the gym about two months ago and started skating about two weeks ago.

"It's a good time for me to start ramping that up," Werenski said. "I'm just excited to get next year rolling."

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