John Tortorella and Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen went to check out Zach Werenski and the AHL’s Lake Erie (now Cleveland) Monsters as Columbus’ affiliate began its march toward a 2016 Calder Cup. Despite some serious tire pumping from Kekalainen beforehand, ‘Torts’ left unimpressed. “Quite honestly, the first few games I saw, he was terrible,” he said. “Jarmo and I laugh about it now. Jarmo had told me, ‘Just watch.’ As the playoffs wore on, Zach’s mental state and how he progressed in that situation – he was unflappable.”
And wouldn’t you know it? As a rookie in the NHL, Werenski has continued his rapid ascent, putting up impressive totals from the blueline and helping Columbus come agonizingly close to the NHL record for consecutive wins, when the team rang off 16 straight between November and January.
There’s an interesting dichotomy in Werenski, which may be the reason he has always been at the head of his class: he jumps into things head-first but remains a quiet and humble soldier as he does so. Perhaps that’s why his adjustments at every level have been rather seamless. He’s confident yet takes nothing for granted. Whatever the reason, the Blue Jackets have the makings of a star blueliner who at 19 is just scratching the surface.
Cover your ears, Columbus fans, but Werenski grew up a Red Wings fan idolizing Nicklas Lidstrom in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. His dad is a cop and his mother works at his uncle’s car dealership. Zach played high-level minor hockey for both the Little Caesars and Belle Tire programs (older brother, Brad, also played for Little Caesars), and his teammates during his formative years included future NHL first-rounders Dylan Larkin, Kyle Connor and Brendan Perlini. Playing voracious competition in the Detroit area – where the Compuware and Honeybaked programs also churn out top talent – Werenski was battle-tested right away, even if he didn’t realize it until later. “It’s huge,” he said. “As a kid you take for granted what you have right in your backyard. Looking back, I’m really grateful.”
From Little Caesars and Grosse Pointe, it was just a short jaunt down the highway to Ann Arbor, where Werenski joined the U.S. National Team Development Program. There, he immediately found success with the under-17 team. Like most prodigies in the program, he also played a few games with the under-18s. “My one year at the program is honestly where I learned the most,” he said. “They throw a lot at you, and it really prepares you.”
But here’s where Werenski broke ranks: nearly all NTDP players spend the full two seasons in Michigan (the program is now located in Plymouth) and are encouraged to do so. But Werenski, whose projectable frame (now 6-foot-2, 218 pounds) and gorgeous skating made him one to watch, decided to challenge himself even further by enrolling at the University of Michigan as a 17-year-old.
And Werenski needed the prep, because his summer was anything but relaxing. To play for the Wolverines, he had to first graduate high school (duh) and then qualify for the university itself. There were snags.
First, there was the mandatory physics credit he needed. That class was cancelled at his local high school, so Werenski had to take an online version that had started two weeks prior. Then, two of the English courses he had already completed weren’t recognized by the NCAA, so he had to sign up for and finish two more classes. That summer, Werenski skated and worked out in the mornings, then did classwork and homework from noon on. And on weekends? More homework.
But all that extra work paid off. He qualified in time for the fall semester and headed off to Michigan. The Wolverines needed him, too. They were coming off their second straight season missing the NCAA tournament after more than 20 consecutive appearances. And while they had three returning blueliners drafted by NHL teams (Brennan Serville, Michael Downing, Nolan De Jong), none had high offensive upside.
Reunited with Larkin, his old buddy from their minor hockey days, Werenski led all Wolverines D-men in scoring as a freshman, though the team once again missed the national tournament. Columbus drafted him eighth overall that summer, making him the third defenseman in the class behind Noah Hanifin (Carolina, fifth overall) and Ivan Provorov (Philadelphia, seventh overall). At the time, there was a legitimate debate about who was the best blueliner available, with all three players boasting different strengths and similar upsides. But the Blue Jackets were ecstatic when Werenski was still on the board at No. 8, and the reasons soon became apparent.
Werenski came back for his sophomore campaign, and though Larkin had moved on to the Red Wings, another childhood teammate came to Michigan as Connor joined the roster. This time, the Wolverines made it back to the tournament, and Werenski topped his rookie totals, registering a point per game.
Then, it got tricky.
Clearly, Werenski was an advanced specimen on the blueline. He could have returned to Ann Arbor and dominated, potentially helping Michigan go on a deep tournament run. But the Blue Jackets were coming off a season that saw the organization sink into a trench, and Werenski could help bring some ballast. “It was an emotional day when I told the coaches I wasn’t coming back,” Werenski said. “But it was the right decision for me in the end. Sometimes you have to be selfish.”
It’s amusing to hear Werenski refer to himself as “selfish,” because it’s not exactly an adjective anyone in mid-Ohio would come up with in a game of Password if he was the clue. “He’s such a respectful kid,” Tortorella said. “He understands the hierarchy of the dressing room, and he’s very humble. Maybe I’m biased because I’m Zach’s coach, but I watch some of the first- and second-year pros out there and see some disrespect for the league. Zach is one of the most coachable kids I’ve come across. He has a mental maturity where he’s flatlined – he has the same mentality every practice.”
Werenski’s flight instincts were right, even after that shaky start with Lake Erie in which he recorded just one point in his seven regular season games before the run to the Calder Cup. But come playoff time, he played a key role in bringing Cleveland its first professional championship in decades, finishing third on the Monsters in points with 14 in 17 games.
After yet another short summer, his first season in Columbus has been mind-blowing. The Blue Jackets record for points by a rookie defenseman was 21, set by Ryan Murray. Werenski broke it before the new year. The franchise mark for points by a rookie, period, is 39, established by Rick Nash. If he maintains his pace, Werenski will smash that mark and usher the Blue Jackets back into the playoffs.
Really, it all seems to come down to trust. Columbus was a trainwreck last season, dogged by injuries but also by a lack of identity. Tortorella came in for the fired Todd Richards in late October, but that meant he wasn’t around to institute his famously gruelling pre-season regimen on the squad.
This year, working with a blank slate, Tortorella was able to implement his torturous training camp. Pushing players to new limits is the whole point. And even for a fast, powerful kid like Werenski, the tests are hard. The skating test requires a player to do three laps around the rink in 40 seconds. After a two-minute break, he does it again. And again, and again…six times (that’s 18 laps), in fact. “One and two are hard,” Werenski said. “Three and four are miserable. Five is the worst, and for six you’re just giving it all you have left.”
With buy-in from the players, Tortorella helmed the first team in 2016-17 to hit 60 points in the standings. As the players put their faith in their coach, he was doing the same thing with his players. During the summer, Tortorella told Werenski he was giving him the power play. Through early January, that unit, showcasing Werenski, was the best in the NHL, rising from 21st overall last season. “It’s all about making decisions at the blueline,” said veteran defenseman Jack Johnson. “You have to take what is given, and he has been a great distributor, without losing that shooter’s mentality.”
"He has another gear, maybe even two gears. He has a couple levels a lot of people can’t even get to."
For Werenski, it comes down to being unselfish. No one cares who gets the goals, as long as they go in. With his puck poise, it’s not hard to see why things are going so well back on the blueline. The best aspect of all of this, however, is we are only seeing the beginning. “He has another gear, maybe even two gears,” Tortorella said. “I think he has a couple levels a lot of people can’t even get to.”
Werenski is already logging some of the most serious minutes of any NHL rookie, as he battles Nikita Zaitsev, Provorov and others in the 21-to-22-minute range, and the impact has been widespread. The Seth Jones trade last year added a legitimate top-pairing defenseman to the squad, and with Murray, Johnson, David Savard and rookie Markus Nutivaara, Columbus is deep on the back end for once. “I’ve been here for years, and this is the first time the minutes have been spread out,” Johnson said. “Teams that are desperate for wins shorten their bench, and it’s not ideal.”
Tortorella has the utmost confidence in Werenski, but he also has a strict line when it comes to exposing him. As advanced as the kid is, he is still at the beginning of his NHL career, and grooming him right is top priority. Werenski is a quiet guy, and his influence on other players in the short term will be how he conducts himself and how he prepares, not in how much he says in the dressing room. “In terms of a leadership role, there’s no projection from us,” Tortorella said. “Defense is the toughest position to learn, and he’s (not yet) 20 years old. We’ll just allow him to play and not ask for much else. He’s the real deal, and we’re not going to screw up his development.”
In the meantime, Werenski continues to adapt to pro life. He became fast friends with Josh Anderson during his AHL stint, and the two got a place together when they made the Blue Jackets in the fall. Both like to have their own space, and cooking is a work in progress, but they’re trying.
As he continues to shine on the blueline, Werenski is still a sponge for information. The coaches are feeding him plenty of hockey knowledge, and with his welcoming attitude to such an education, he’ll soon be even harder to play against. “The times I haven’t played my best,” Werenski said, “is when I learn the most.”