The Columbus Blue Jackets finished the 2014-15 season on a 15-1-1 run, and somehow still missed the playoffs by 9 points. That fun – albeit meaningless – run basically took them out of the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, as they landed the eighth overall pick. The Blue Jackets were unable to land the generational, franchise-altering center, but did manage to snag a cornerstone defenseman. GM Jarmo Kekalainen selected 17-year-old defenseman Zach Werenski from the University of Michigan after an outstanding freshman season.
Werenski stayed in Michigan for his sophomore season, where he was a point-per-game player, posting 11 goals and 25 assists for 36 points, on his way to being named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year as well as an AHCA First Team All-American. That summer, he was named captain for Team USA at the World Juniors, where he took home the bronze medal in addition to being named top defenseman of the tournament.
At the end of the 2015-16 season, he turned pro but with the Jackets out of playoff contention, both Werenski and the Jackets’ management felt it would be best for him to join a Lake Erie team about to embark on what they hoped would be a long playoff run. Little did anybody know that it would be one of, if not the greatest Calder Cup run in history.
Once the playoffs began, Werenski took off, setting AHL records for assists and points by an 18-year old in a single playoffs. Werenski registered 14 points in 17 games played on his way to a Calder Cup ring, even assisting on the cup winning goal by Oliver Bjorkstrand.
With a championship ring already in his back pocket, Zach entered the 2017-18 season with a spot in the top 4 as well as quarterbacking a power play unit. He wasted little time establishing himself as one of the premier young defenseman in the league, capturing the rookie of the month award for November after posting 10 points in 14 games. In total for the year, he’d register 47 points (11g 36a), smashing the previous rookie points record of 39 set by Rick Nash.
His rookie season would come to an unfortunate end during Game 3 of the Jackets’ first round series, when a Phil Kessel shot deflected up under his visor breaking an orbital bone and a bone in his sinus cavity. Shockingly, he would return to the game and attempt to keep playing until his eye swelled completely shut (earning great praise from coach John Tortorella.) A CBJ legend was born.
Werenski is back in the game after taking a puck to the face. The brutal aftermath: pic.twitter.com/pAU1YMAQg0— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) April 17, 2017
Werenski finished third in Calder Trophy voting and even picked up a handful of Norris Trophy votes. Not bad for a teenager.
Over the next few seasons, Zach Werenski and Seth Jones cemented themselves as the foundation of the defense and the engine of the team while eating up huge minutes on the back end. Zach made his first NHL All-Star Game appearance in 2018, filling in for an ill Seth Jones, where he comically participated in the fastest skater competition against the likes of Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Nathan MacKinnon.
By the age of 22, Werenski had put his name in the CBJ record books multiple times. He already holds the all-time and single-season record for most goals by a defenseman. His 65 total goals leads the field by 15 and that number will only continue to increase. His record-setting 20 goal season tops the second spot on that list by four goals, also held by Werenski as well as his partner, Seth Jones.
It’s quite a luxury for the Blue Jackets to have arguably the best two defenseman to ever wear the uniform playing together on the same pairing. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Blue Jackets’ greatest string of seasons coincided with Werenski’s arrival. This season will mark the first time the team has missed the playoffs since Z arrived.
However, the next few offseasons will be the real litmus test of the health of the franchise. The Jackets need to keep Werenski (and Jones) around to anchor the defense for years to come. With so many accomplishments to his name already, it’s crazy to think that he is still yet to enter his prime. Here’s to hoping those prime years will be in the Union Blue.
By the Numbers
Games played: 335
Penalty Minutes: 71
Power Play Goals: 14
Power Play Points: 64
Game-Winning Goals: 10
Playoff Games: 29
Playoff Goals: 4
Playoff Assists: 9
Playoff Points: 13
Playoff Game-Winning Goals: 2