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Breaking down Zach Werenski’s worth on and off the ice

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Zach Werenski, a restricted free agent, is yet to be re-signed by the Blue Jackets. While a deal is likely around the corner, we look at the value he brings on - and off - the ice.

Boston Bruins v Columbus Blue Jackets - Game Three Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

We’re about a month from the start of training camp and the Blue Jackets appear to have the bulk of their roster in order. Aside from a couple of roster spots available for newcomers, the Jackets essentially know who’s suiting up for them when they face off against the Maple Leafs on Friday, Oct. 4. One essential cog from the lineup remains unsigned, however: defenseman Zach Werenski.

Werenski is a restricted free agent who has until Dec. 1 to sign a contract in order to play this season, or risk sitting out. Though it’s likely he signs sooner than later. Contract negotiations are an arduous process, and we’ve seen that play out with Ryan Johansen and Josh Anderson in recent years. Several other notable RFAs around the league are also still unsigned including the CanucksBrock Boeser, JetsPatrik Laine and Kyle Connor, Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner, BruinsCharlie McAvoy, and Lightning’s Brayden Point.

According to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline last week, both Werenski and the Blue Jackets are looking to get a deal done by the start of training camp in September. Earlier this spring, EvolvingWild projected Werenski to sign for seven years at a cap hit of $6,844,122. As of right now, the Blue Jackets still have $15,765,918 left in cap space.

Other comps.

I was thinking about a deal made prior to the 2018-19 season when the Kings extended superstar defenseman Drew Doughty to an eight-year, $88 million year contract, which was the richest contract for a defenseman at the time. Before you scream about comparing Werenski to Doughty, I took a dive under the hood to compare the two analytically.

The below illustrates how the two have played since Werenski entered the league in 2016.

Drew Doughty vs. Zach Werenski 5v5 2016-17 through 2018-19

Team Position GP TOI CF% FF% SF% GF GA GF% xGF% SCF% HDCF% HDGF% MDCF% MDGF% LDCF% LDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off. Zone Starts Neu. Zone Starts Def. Zone Starts On The Fly Starts Off. Zone Start % Off. Zone Faceoffs Neu. Zone Faceoffs Def. Zone Faceoffs Off. Zone Faceoff %
Team Position GP TOI CF% FF% SF% GF GA GF% xGF% SCF% HDCF% HDGF% MDCF% MDGF% LDCF% LDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off. Zone Starts Neu. Zone Starts Def. Zone Starts On The Fly Starts Off. Zone Start % Off. Zone Faceoffs Neu. Zone Faceoffs Def. Zone Faceoffs Off. Zone Faceoff %
LA D 246 4883:46 51.82 50.71 51.06 174 170 50.58 49.59 50.07 49.53 50.79 50.43 53.06 53.02 46.43 7.31 92.55 0.999 696 1259 796 3033 46.65 1630 1888 1627 50.05
CBJ D 237 4185:30 52.80 53.25 53.34 189 160 54.15 51.3 51.55 50.78 53.51 52.09 56.07 54.61 55.56 7.99 92.27 1.003 808 1177 622 2637 56.5 1595 1623 1206 56.94

I’m not suggesting Werenski is better than Doughty, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, two-time Olympic gold medal winner, former Norris winner, and All-Star. But Werenski’s numbers — especially on offense — show just how good No. 8 has been since entering the league.

This year’s superstar defenseman to sign a contract was Erik Karlsson with the Sharks for eight years and $92 million, a price that is now the benchmark for defenseman contracts. Similar to Doughty, Karlsson is 29-years-old, a seasoned NHL veteran and All-Star, a two-time Norris winner, and Olympic medalist. Just like with Doughty, I compared the numbers between Karlsson and Werenski since 2016.

*Note Karlsson only played in 53 games during the 2018-19 season.

Erik Karlsson vs. Zach Werenski 5v5 2016-17 through 2018-19

Team Position GP TOI CF% FF% SF% GF GA GF% xGF% SCF% HDCF% HDGF% MDCF% MDGF% LDCF% LDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off. Zone Starts Neu. Zone Starts Def. Zone Starts On The Fly Starts Off. Zone Start % Off. Zone Faceoffs Neu. Zone Faceoffs Def. Zone Faceoffs Off. Zone Faceoff %
Team Position GP TOI CF% FF% SF% GF GA GF% xGF% SCF% HDCF% HDGF% MDCF% MDGF% LDCF% LDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off. Zone Starts Neu. Zone Starts Def. Zone Starts On The Fly Starts Off. Zone Start % Off. Zone Faceoffs Neu. Zone Faceoffs Def. Zone Faceoffs Off. Zone Faceoff %
OTT, S.J D 201 3931:55 52.54 52.50 52.65 176 184 48.89 52.26 50.95 51.84 46.83 50.32 53.68 53.58 47.46 8.16 90.51 0.987 663 870 541 2591 55.07 1425 1355 1154 55.25
CBJ D 237 4185:30 52.80 53.25 53.34 189 160 54.15 51.3 51.55 50.78 53.51 52.09 56.07 54.61 55.56 7.99 92.27 1.003 808 1177 622 2637 56.5 1595 1623 1206 56.94

Again, not to say Werenski is on the same level as Doughty and Karlsson, but the numbers that Werenski has produced are quite favorable in terms of the on-ice production he brings, and that will play into his next contract.

At 22-years-old, a max eight-year deal would take Werenski up to his age-29 season, setting him up for at least one large pay day as a UFA.

More than likely, Werenski and his camp will opt for a shorter contract. Think about it. The earliest Werenski can become a UFA is 2023: Get big money sooner and more often, right?

According to Portzline, both scenarios have been included:

“The two sides have discussed a three-year contract, which would leave Werenski with one more season of RFA status at the end of the deal. But they’ve also discussed longer-term contracts (five years or more) that would extend into Werenski’s UFA years.”

A more realistic comparable for Werenski could be Noah Hanifin.

Now with the Flames, Hanifin was drafted by the Hurricanes in the same draft class as Werenski with the fifth overall pick. He has an extra year in the NHL, as Werenski played his sophomore season at the University of Michigan before finishing 2015-16 with the Monsters. After Hanifin was traded to the Flames last summer, he agreed to a six-year, $29.7 million deal at $4.95 million AAV, and is set to become a UFA in 2025 when he will be 27-years-old.

We’ll see how it all plays out with ‘Z’ soon enough.

Jarmo Kekalainen’s number one priority is coming to a contract agreement with his All-Star defenseman, and the organization considers him a vital part of the defense and roster core that is continuing to evolve. The offensive value Werenski has provided since making his NHL debut places him in the upper echelon of star defensemen. His 38 goals over the last three seasons places him ninth among the position, and his 128 points places him just outside the top 20 for all defensemen.

NHL.com

As good as Werenski is offensively, and as his game away from the puck continues to evolve, the team is better with Werenski on the ice than without.

Here’s why if you don’t believe me.

With or Without You

There’s encouragement when paired with Seth Jones, who, while isolated from Werenski, is still very solid in his own right. Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Pierre-Luc Dubois also saw their respective play rise further into the ‘good’ section last season with Werenski. Then there’s supernatural Artemi Panarin who was great regardless.

Spider

This spider chart shows more ‘good’ when Werenski is mixed with nearly anyone on the ice. Particularly, the fun scoring combinations with Jones and Dubois.

Game-by-game history

Naturally, Jones and Werenski were paired together the most in 2018-19 based on the amount of red depicted above. And while we know how well the duo drives the play offensively, the coaching staff broke up the pairing as Werenski focused more on the defense element of his game.

This allowed Jones to match up with Ryan Murray on the first pairing, and the results were quite good. But is the team better when splitting up Jones and Werenski?

According to his WOWY chart, Jones was actually a tad better when paired with Werenski than with Murray, however, it is worth nothing that Murray played half the time with Jones than Werenski did.

Alison Lukan of The Athletic put together a comprehensive look examining the pros and cons of pairing together, or separating, Jones and Werenski. What she discovered in her findings was that careful lineup construction — centered around Jones paired with Werenski or Murray — would allow either pairing to work as a viable option.

At the end of the day, the Blue Jackets are better for having the three defensemen on their roster. As it pertains to Werenski, his offensive gifts and ability to join the rush gives life to the Blue Jackets scoring options. It’s an intrinsic value that forms a lethal attack in Columbus. As he continues to develop his two-way game, Werenski will be even more the force to contend with in the coming future.