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Rising to the Challenge

Zach Werenski's journey from number 8 draft pick to Calder Trophy nominee

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

LAS VEGAS - Barring a trade Friday night the Dallas Stars will use the third overall pick to select their highest draft pick since the franchise selected Mike Modano with the first overall pick in 1988, five years before the team would move from Minnesota to Dallas.

And while the 2017 NHL Draft may not feature the generational players of the last two drafts, it is chockablock with interesting, talented young men who possess the potential to change a franchise.

What's the best the Stars can hope for? Regardless of whether it's a defenseman like Miro Heiskanen or Cale Makar or a talented center like Gabriel Vilardi, Casey Mittelstadt or Michael Rasmussen, the Stars can only hope to have a player like rookie of the year nominee Zach Werenski of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Should the Stars go the defenseman route with the third pick, Werenski offers a tantalizing blue print they can only hope might be replicated in Texas.

Werenski finished third in voting for the Calder Trophy behind winner Auston Matthews, the first overall pick in last June's draft and the man selected after him, Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets.

But Werenski has been a catalyst to a dramatic turnaround in Columbus after being selected with the 8th overall pick in 2015.

"I think what impressed me most is he got handed a lot to him right away," Columbus captain Nick Foligno said in an interview. "Just with his abilities, I think sometimes it's just that's what comes with the territory but he handled it so professionally and that's impressive at 19 years old. I think that's what I really appreciate about him is he never let it get to him, he never let it get to his head first of all. He just kept going about his business and working hard and I think he earned everyone's respect that way."

Werenski played two seasons at the University of Michigan and then joined the Blue Jackets' American Hockey League affiliate at the end of his second year in time for a run to the Calder Cup championship. He had 14 points in 17 playoff games for Erie in the spring of 2016.

While in Erie, he met Josh Anderson and the two agreed that if they both made the big club out of training camp last fall they would room together. And that's exactly what happened.

"Well, he's messy for sure," Werenski said before the NHL awards ceremony. "Obviously I'm going to say that. I think we worked really well together. Obviously it's kind of tough when you see someone every day and you can kind of get in each other's ears and heads and you butt heads at some points, but I figure our friendship is awesome."

Being able to share the ups and downs of the rookie season with another rookie was also a factor in Werenski's accelerated maturation.

"Just going through it. My rookie year, it was his rookie year but he's played games so for me kind of asking him questions prior to the year definitely helped," Werenski said. "We kind of do our own thing a little bit. We're roommates but we don't see each other a lot so I think that's kind of the best way to do it. You kind of get your own space, you do your own thing, but you get to go home and you get to talk about games and practices and weeks ahead so it's really nice having a roommate like that."

Head coach John Tortorella had high praise for the young defenseman who played most of the season with another former top draft pick, Seth Jones.

"The timing of him turning pro, I remember when I met him, I saw him in Detroit the first time, we were playing the Red Wings, he had a little school left and the first thing I said to him, I said, well, what goes on now? I said get done with school and let's get going. He kind of looked at me, but the timing and to play four rounds of the American Hockey League and go through the grind and all the ebbs and flows of the momentum swings there is just like the National Hockey League, it worked out perfect for us," Tortorella said.

"And give him credit there are some great young players in the league, I don't think there's a younger player in this league that handled himself better in understanding how you act," the coach of the year winner added. "I looked at some other young players that I thought went the wrong way. Talented, great players but it just worried me to watch how they talked and I think a little bit of a lack of respect of the league, but this guy gets it as far as what it is to be a pro and he's a defenseman. He's not a forward, he's a defenseman and we're thrilled to have him."

Werenski led all rookie defensemen with 47 points, but his season came to a premature end in the first round of the playoffs when he suffered a gruesome facial injury when he was struck by a puck. The impact left him with a broken orbital bone. Recently, a fan made a t-shirt out of a picture of Werenski's mangled face, which has become an instant classic.

"I got to meet him last week actually," Werenski said of the fan. "I went to Columbus and I got a few shirts for myself. They're selling them for charity so it's a pretty cool idea and he's an awesome guy. At first I was kind of down when it happened and I realized my season was over, and when I saw that it kind of put a smile on my face at a time when I wasn't too happy."

If there was one important lesson Werenski learned during his first NHL season it's how to manage the grind that is the NHL schedule.

"I kind of learned how hard it really is," he said. "Until you go through it you can't prepare for it. You can't understand what it's even like until you go through it. Eighty-two games, back to back in different cities. It seems like you're flying all the time and traveling. It's something that I tried to prepare myself for and I hear a ton about it, but until you go through it you never really know and the guys even told me and even next year will be a struggle at times throughout the year. Until you play five, six seven years you really can't understand and your body doesn't really adjust to it," the Grosse Point, Michigan native said.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB

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