Werenski and Jones.
Or, Jones and Werenski.
Or Z and Seth.
Or 3 & 8.
No matter how you phrased it, the tandem of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski have been at the top of the Columbus Blue Jackets defensive pairings for the last several seasons.
For the 335 games that Werenski has been a member of the Blue Jackets, so has Jones. At 381 games with the club, it is Jones, acquired in a mid-season trade from the Nashville Predators during the 2015-16 season, who has the slight edge in games played. He completed the season by playing 41 games with Columbus, all while Werenski was putting up 36 points in 36 games for the Michigan Wolverines hockey club before a very brief (seven game) stint with the Lake Erie (now Cleveland) Monsters.
Werenski was called up for the 2016-17 season and averaged just under 21 minutes of ice time per game in his rookie year. It wasn't long before many of those minutes were played alongside Jones, and the pairing would only see more time together for several seasons of playoff-caliber hockey.
So when Jones let Blue Jackets management know a few weeks back that he would not be re-signing with the team after the upcoming season, opting instead to test free agency, it came as a gut-punch to many fans. The top pairing for the last few seasons, once assumed as a ten-year staple in the Columbus lineup, was over. Not just split up, but completely and forever separated.
It's not the best news in the world, but general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and company believe they can get a good return for Jones, a defenseman entering the prime of his career. Amidst the wondering of what the team can get in a trade and the narrative that it's another example of a player who doesn't want to be in Columbus, there's one thing that's been lost in the shuffle a bit:
This is Zach's blue line now.
It remains to be seen who will join Werenski on the top line for the upcoming season, and there are multiple ways the team may go. Vladislav Gavrikov has been sharp on the second line, but the jury is still out whether or not he can mold himself into a consistent, top-line defender. Perhaps the Blue Jackets swing a deal for Jones and get a good blue liner in return. A free agent is another possibility, and there has been some chatter that pending free-agent Dougie Hamilton and the Blue Jackets may have a conversation in the near future.
But regardless of who he is paired with, Werenski will have the opportunity to shine without being joined at the hip with Jones, a four-time All-Star. The former Wolverine is thought of as an offensive defenseman, and he is, but Werenski continues to evolve on both sides of the puck, minus a few blunders (of which no one is immune to).
In December, Alison Lukan provided a detailed breakdown of the two. Of many possible takeaways, one sticks out: "An unheralded note is how much more defensive Werenski was than both his team and the league and he actually improved in suppressing opponents’ offense as a shift went along."
For a league that becomes more about scoring and skill as each season comes, that's an impressive fact.
With new head coach Brad Larsen at the realms, there is already a familiarity and a bond between the coach and the teams new defensive leader, and should help the transition as Werenski goes from being one of two names synonymous with the Blue Jackets top pairing to the undisputed leader of the blue line.
Or so, we'll hope.