We need to talk about something, friends.
This much is true: Auston Matthews is probably going to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie.
There’s an argument that Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine, currently the league's second-leading goal scorer, is right behind Matthews. And if either of those players wins, fine, you won’t hear much groaning from the gallery.
But the fact that Zach Werenski can’t get a sniff in this conversation is absolutely baffling. In fact, it’s legitimately insulting.
Let’s step back in time for just a moment.
When the Blue Jackets took a deep breath and evaluated their 2015-16 season (gulp), one item brought up by head coach John Tortorella was the idea of changing their style of play. He felt that, with the pieces in place and some potential pieces on the way, they could be more aggressive, take chances, and push the pace up the ice.
Where it started, he reasoned, was on the back end.
The trade for Seth Jones got those wheels into motion. Watching Werenski in the Calder Cup playoffs accelerated the thinking even more; if this kid could play in the NHL this season, they could transform their style.
And they did, to the tune of 27 wins in their first 36 games.
Werenski didn’t dip his toes in the big-league waters – he straight-up cannonballed and splashed the folks relaxing in pool chairs. Some of the things he’s been able to do are just mind-boggling, including running the point on one of the NHL’s best power play units and not looking the least bit out of place.
He was the NHL's Rookie of the Month in November:
He’s played at least 20 minutes in 40 of 65 games this season. Assistant coach Brad Shaw, who runs the defense, isn’t afraid to use him in any situation. Sure, there have been games where Shaw preferred a particular matchup and shortened the bench (giving Werenski a rest), but by and large he hasn't been sheltered. At 19, he’s one of two Blue Jackets defensemen (Jack Johnson is the other) to play in each of the team’s first 65 games this season.
What's most impressive is Werenski's ability to drive play when he’s on the ice at even strength.
His 5-on-5 Corsi number is 53.48%, tops among Blue Jackets blue-liners. Right behind him is defense partner Seth Jones (an old man at 22 years old) at 52.65%, which is stats-speak for saying they don't spend a lot of time in their own zone. Wondering why the Blue Jackets have the league's third-best goal differential? Look no further.
Secondly, I’ll grant you this: it has been a tremendous season for rookies in the NHL. Probably one of the best we’ll see for a while. Laine has 32 goals in only 60 games, Matthews has 31 in 66, and Mitch Marner is leading the Maple Leafs with 37 assists.
Werenski, a defenseman, has the sixth-most points among NHL rookies (39) and is on pace for a 50-point season. Yes, that’s correct: 50 points. As a defenseman. A rookie defenseman.
ESPN.com’s Craig Custance wrote this strong piece on Werenski and his adjustment to the long, grueling NHL season. Here’s a clip that stood out:
At times, especially earlier this month, it looked as though Werenski might be slowing down after a hot start to his NHL career. He was taken off Columbus' first power-play unit to help shift focus to his defense and his play without the puck. He went his longest stretch without registering a point -- six games -- to start February.
With a tough veteran such as John Tortorella as his first NHL coach, the teenage defenseman could have been forgiven if he were afraid to speak up and went into a bit of a shell. It has taken veterans more than a season to feel comfortable going to Tortorella with issues.
When the offense started to dry up, he approached Tortorella with a solution.
"He said, 'Sometimes I don't get enough touches and I'm not in the game,'" Tortorella said. "That's what's cool about him. That's what's really neat about him."
He’s a significant player on a Blue Jackets team that, as of Friday, has the second-most points in the entire league and has allowed the second-fewest goals (143 in 65 games).
It’s time to give more credit where more credit is due. This kid is the real deal, and is a big reason why the Blue Jackets are on the verge of breaking franchise records for wins and points.