By Mitch Stacy
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The social-media griping grew increasingly vociferous as the Columbus Blue Jackets traded away popular veterans one by one as part of a major roster overhaul.
First, captain Nick Foligno and reliable defenseman David Savard at the deadline in April. Then All-Star defenseman Seth Jones and gutsy forward Cam Atkinson. All faces of the franchise.
That’s one of the reasons the announcement that defenseman Zach Werenski signed a long-term contract extension landed with such a satisfying boom late Thursday for the Blue Jackets.
The organization also hopes that locking in the 24-year-old Werenski with a six-year, $57.5 million deal will help dispel the notion that Columbus isn’t able to attract elite young players and persuade them to stick around.
“This is where I want to be,” Werenski said Friday. “I’m happy in Columbus. It’s been so good to me. You know, why would I want to leave? There’s no reason for me to want to leave.”
Werenski, who grew up in Grosse Point, Michigan, already has five NHL seasons behind him and is one of the league’s top blue-liners. He’ll make about $7 million this season and then the new deal will pay him about $9.6 million a year through 2027-28, putting him among the highest-paid defensemen.
Werenski’s deal came a day after 28-year-old forward Boone Jenner, now the longest-tenured Blue Jacket at eight seasons, was inked to a four-year, $15 million extension.
“It’s really important,” Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “We’ve been saying all along that this perception that seems to be out there that people don’t want to stay is not right. We’ve had a lot of players in the past commit to long-term contracts here, and now we’ve had two of our core, heart-and-soul-type players, commit long-term with us.”
The Blue Jackets had intended to lock in 26-year-old Seth Jones — Werenski’s blue line mate for the last five seasons — with a rich, long-term deal and perhaps the captaincy. But Jones had other ideas and was traded to Chicago, where he promptly signed an eight-year extension.
Werenski said he’s ready to assume his place as No. 1 defenseman and try to fill a leadership vacuum created by the departure of the veterans.
“Ever since I joined the league we played together,” Werenski said of Jones. “He’s one of my best friends, and I wish him nothing but the best in Chicago. But I’m ready to be a true No. 1 and show everyone what I can do without him.”
The year has been tumultuous for the Blue Jackets all around.
A late tailspin in the coronavirus-shortened season kept Columbus out of the playoffs after four straight appearances. Savard was traded to Tampa Bay, and Foligno — the 33-year-old captain and happy Columbus booster — was shipped off to assist Toronto in its playoff push.
After the season, the team parted ways with coach John Tortorella, who was replaced by one of his assistants, Brad Larsen. Then Matiss Kivlenieks, a promising 24-year-old goaltender, was killed in a freak fireworks accident on the Fourth of July at the Michigan home of the team’s goalie coach, Manny Legace.
Jones and then Atkinson, who had played in Columbus for 10 years, were traded in separate deals Saturday.
“We got into the playoffs four times in a row and had a little bit of playoff success, but we haven’t had a parade here, so we have to make changes,” Kekalainen said. “Sometimes they’re hard. It’s emotional to make those decisions due in part to the players who have been an important part of the plan here. But if you want to get to the ultimate goal you have to make changes. We have a plan, we’re going to build it the right way and get back into the playoffs and be a Stanley Cup contender.”