The Calder Trophy race is gonna be a mess this year. Don't get me wrong – it's the best kind of mess possible, but still…
How do you handicap this thing right now? You have Winnipeg's Patrik Laine, already with two hat tricks and a lead in the Rocket Richard race. You have Toronto's Auston Matthews, facing top defensemen (Victor Hedman, Zdeno Chara) and shutdown centers (Ryan O'Reilly) and still one of the NHL's top scorers. Leafs teammate Mitch Marner has been a wonder, while William Nylander has more points than either of his Buds buds. Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich have met and possibly even exceeded lofty expectations with the New York Rangers. And no doubt the names will change as the season goes on.
But one kid to keep track of is Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski. He is also one of the top-scoring rookies in the NHL, but he's doing it from the blueline. And last night he got his first overtime goal in the league:
First off, that was some stellar work by Alexander Wennberg. But props to Werenski for making no mistake and putting his quick hands to good use. As indispensable Columbus beat writer Aaron Portzline noted, Werenski's 11 points in 11 games has him on pace to destroy a couple franchise rookie records:
So, a pretty good start for the kid. But let's be honest; Werenski has always done things quickly. He fast-tracked through high school in order to play for the University of Michigan as a 17-year-old and was the Wolverines' best defenseman that year. He was a point-per-gamer as a sophomore, then signed his pro deal once Michigan's season ended. Werenski wasn't done, however: he simply helped the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters march all the way through the playoffs, earning the Calder Cup and the city of Cleveland's first big sports title since 1964.
Now, still just 19, Werenski is showing little fear of the NHL. Not only is he the Blue Jackets' best regular defenseman in terms of possession stats, he's second on the team to Brandon Saad (I'm not counting Dalton Prout because he has only played six of 11 games). Werenski is third in average ice time among NHL rookies (21:41, behind Boston's Brandon Carlo and Toronto's Nikita Zaitsev) and part of that work includes killing penalties. And with Seth Jones sidelined for a couple weeks, Werenski becomes even more important to a Blue Jackets squad off to a very solid start. Can he sustain his great work through an 82-game schedule? That's the challenge for every rookie – including Laine and Matthews.
And while it's still very early, it's important to keep Werenski in mind. Because in his short and burgeoning career, he has proven that getting up to speed has never been a problem.