2018-19 Player Review: Zach Werenski plays fine in his first year back from major shoulder surgery, everyone freaks out anyway

He’s 21 years old, having his first healthy offseason in his career, and just a restricted free agent. He’s going to be just fine.

Zach Werenski played all 82 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets just months after having major reconstructive surgery on his shoulder during the 2018 offseason. Remember this?

Werenski, coming off a torn labrum, spent his offseason not working on his shot, but working on moving his elbow above his shoulder again.

Upon his return to the lineup in game one, Werenski struggled to get back up to speed at the NHL level - not surprising, given how his offseason was spent. After a rocky start to the season that saw Werenski appearing on the score sheet but getting beaten defensively, he was dropped to the second pairing for much of November, replaced on the top pairing by Ryan Murray.

Werenski’s ice time fluctuated between the mid-teens and mid-20s until late December, when his consistent defensive form meant that he re-established himself as a defenseman Coach Tortorella could count on - his minutes dipped below 20 minutes/night only twice after December 15, during 4-0 wins late in the season over the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders. After December 15, Werenski posted 6-22-28 in 50 games played, along with a -3 (tilted by a -5 in two nights in March as the team was thrashed in Calgary and Edmonton, but still).

Werenski, once he regained his form and confidence in his body after suffering a major injury, played well down the stretch. He might not have been up to his own lofty expectations, but for the first time in his NHL career, Werenski will have an entire offseason to work on his game. He will be fully healthy entering training camp and (knocking on wood) opening night 2019. That alone offers more promise for Werenski’s 4th professional season.

2018-19 Zach Werenski Stats

Games played: 82
Goals: 11
Assists: 33
Points: 44
Time on ice: 22:54
Penalty Minutes: 18
Corsi For (even strength): 51.0%

2018-19 Playoff Stats

Games played: 10
Goals: 1
Assists: 5
Points: 6
Time on ice: 26:37
Penalty Minutes: 9
Corsi For (even strength): 45.1%

Zach Werenski’s Contract Status

Zach Werenski is a restricted free agent this offseason. While any team is free to sign Werenski, the Blue Jackets reserve the right to match any offer sheet tendered to Werenski. As offer sheets are rare in the NHL, however, don’t expect this to present itself - but, even if it did, there is no doubt GM Jarmo Kekalainen would match it.

As for what Werenski could expect? There are some comparable contracts fans can look to as they consider salary cap expectations.

Noah Hanifin

Hanifin, now in his fourth year in the NHL, set career highs in assists and points for the Calgary Flames. Hanifin, originally drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes, was traded along with Elias Lindholm for Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and Adam Fox.

Upon his arrival in Calgary, Hanifin was signed to a six year, $29.7 million deal with a modified no trade clause in the final two years of the deal. Hanifin, upon signing his deal, had played 239 NHL games, registering 18-65-83 with a -53 while averaging 18:14 per night.

Werenski, of course has better numbers and has played more per night than Hanifin did in Carolina. In Calgary, Hanifin’s usage increased but his point totals do not.

Signing Werenski to a deal comparable to Hanifin’s would be a steal for the team, but Werenski is likely to demand more based on his production.

Rasmus Ristolainen

Rasmus Ristolainen has spent his entire career in Buffalo. Like Werenski, Ristolainen made his debut at his age 19 season. Unlike Werenski, Ristolainen played just 34 games in rookie season. Over the next two years, he amassed 17 goals and 61 points. He then signed a six year deal worth $32.4 million.

Since signing that contract, he has 129 points and just 17 goals and is rumored to be on the trade block. Werenski, in his three year career, has 38 goals and 128 points. Werenski will likely point to Ristolainen’s contract as the starting point for negotiations.

Seth Jones

Jones, Werenski’s playing partner for much of his career, played his first two years in Nashville before being traded to Columbus in January of 2016. Over the course of his first three seasons, Jones registered 17 goals and 83 points while playing mostly second pairing minutes for a deep Nashville defensive corps.

Seen as a foundational defenseman for the Blue Jackets, Jones signed a six year, $32.4 million deal in June 2016 that includes a modified no trade clause for the last two years of the deal. Jones has since blossomed into a perennial Norris Trophy candidate, one of the best players in Blue Jackets history, and the future captain of the team.

Contract Prediction

Zach Werenski will likely command more money than Seth Jones’ contract (despite Jones being the better player). This does not suggest that Werenski is better than Jones, merely that the salary cap rising and available dollars (along with actual on ice production, though in different circumstances) means that Werenski’s contract will likely be more actual dollars than what Seth Jones signed three summers ago.

PREDICTION: Zach Werenski signs a six year, $36 million contract with a modified no trade clause for the final two years of the deal.

High Point

Werenski played his best game of the season on March 12, 2019. In a home matchup against the Boston Bruins, Werenski registered four points, including one goal on the power play as the Jackets beat the Bruins in Nationwide Arena by a score of 7-4.

Werenski’s best offensive output came during a crucial stretch as the Jackets were still fighting for a playoff spot. He took 29 shifts for a total of 22:58 of ice time and led the team in scoring in a crucial home win.

Low Point

During the month of November and early December, Werenski struggled. Mightily. He only posted eight points (three goals) from November 1st until December 15th. His ice time sagged dramatically, culminating in a season low 13:21 in Washington as the Jackets beat the Capitals by a score of 2-1 (Werenski assisted on the game winning goal). His bad defensive zone habits bit him as he failed to execute and the mental hurdles crept into his offensive game - Werenski boasted a 30 game goal drought this past season. However, as Werenski’s defensive game improved, and his mental game restored, Werenski was able to rediscover his form in the latter half of the season.

Werenski’s first two months were a disappointment, and he’ll be the first to tell you that. Recovering from am injury of such magnitude as he did is difficult, and he fixed his defensive zone habits. Thankfully, Werenski will not have to do that this offseason.

Report Card

How would you grade Zach Werenski’s 2018-19 season?


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