Scrimmages got underway on Thursday, with the Columbus Blue Jackets inching closer to the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
With their matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs two-and-a-half weeks away, they’ve now completed four practices. After Thursday’s camp, Zach Werenski and Nathan Gerbe spent some time talking to the media for the first time this week. Here are three of the most important things they talked about.
To open training camp, head coach John Tortorella split the Blue Jackets’ roster into two parts. The first group included 22 players who’ll be the important cogs when facing Toronto, and the other 11-player group featured a group of players who could earn playing time but are certainly underdogs.
Gerbe, the oldest player in training camp, found himself in the second group.
Yes, of course, he’d prefer a spot in the first group. The 32-year-old center has been in the NHL since 2008, when many of the team’s core pieces were still in grade school. He’s played in 426 games. But he’s not salty about the exclusion. Not at all.
“As of right now, I'm not on the lineup,” Gerbe said on Thursday. “But no matter what part I play on this team, I want to help it win and get past the first round and hopefully make a good, long run to the finals. That's been my goal. Obviously, as you get older, you don't get these opportunities too much. You cherish your time at the rink during this time of year – a little bit different to say this time of year. This time playoff hockey, you cherish every moment you're here. So I have nothing but positivity for me and excitement.”
Maybe Gerbe gets into a game in the Qualifiers. Maybe he doesn’t. But he’s been around long enough to use the Group Two inclusion as fuel.
“I don't need much as motivation,” Gerbe said. “I think, just, I have that. It's never left me. So that's always going to be in me, and I'm ready whenever I get called on. I'll be excited. I'm here to root the team on and be a part of the team and hopefully get in the lineup and make a difference. I'm confident in myself to get that chance in the lineup. But as of now, I'm just going to work hard and be a good example for everyone and try to help out where I can.”
Gerbe takes pride in being a veteran presence. He notes that he’s been with a lot of the team’s younger players at points over the past few seasons with the Cleveland Monsters, so he sees himself as someone they can come to with questions.
He said he takes “a lot of pride in that.”
“Just a lot of energy. He gets our bench going,” Werenski said. “Just the way he plays the game, how hard he plays the game, he can bring guys into the fight. A lot of guys can learn from him, especially young guys, myself included, just seeing how hard he plays the game. His size doesn't matter when he's out there. He just goes and plays his game, and I think that's awesome.”
In the first three days of practice, Werenski got a taste of playing with Seth Jones again as the top pairing of defensemen. He hadn’t had the opportunity since early February to skate with him. Not since Jones went down with an ankle injury.
Then on the fourth day of the week, it felt even better.
“Even today, just playing our first scrimmage together, just the chemistry we have,” Werenski said.
He had missed that feeling.
When Jones went down, it forced Werenski to play without the fellow defenseman he had become accustomed to being on the ice with. It was an adjustment period, and he admits he wasn’t always perfect in those moments.
“I've played with him for four years,” Werenski said. “With him out of the lineup, it's hard to adjust to a new partner. All our defensemen are great. It's easy to play with everyone. But if you play with a guy for 280 out of your 300 games, you start to gain that chemistry. I think me and him had good chemistry this year, and obviously when he went out of the lineup, he's a big part of our team. He's a big part of our engine. It's definitely different, and I think it was a learning process for me. I don't think I played the best hockey I could have played. I think I could have stepped up more, played better. But those are all things that you have to kind of go through to experience.”
Werenski doesn’t have to worry about that anymore. Tortorella said he and Jones will be together again for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
“I know how he plays and what he wants to do when he has the puck and when he doesn't,” Werenski said. “I always know when if I'm up in the play, he's going to be there covering for me. it's just that trust thing. I think we trust each other a lot. We work off each other. I think it's been a good pairing for the last three-and-a-half, four seasons, and hopefully we can continue to grow together.”
Pair Of New-Look Jackets
Not everything about sports needs to be taken seriously. This is supposed to be fun.
And you know what’s fun? The mullet and mustache Werekski decided to rock and the full-on beard David Savard has.
Werenski’s hair-facial hair combo stood out enough that even John Tortorella poked fun at it without anyone prompting him. Werenski said he didn’t have an inspiration for growing it out. Rather, he just “got kind of bored” and let the mustache go wild then said, “Screw it, I’m going to get a mullet.”
“And here we are,” he said.
Werenski said his parents didn’t have much to say about his new hair and mustache, with his dad telling him, “You've got to walk around with it on your head every day.”
“My dad said it's you're hair, you can do whatever. My dad doesn't have hair, so he can't really say anything,” Werenski said, eliciting laughter from the media.
Neither he nor Savard have any plans to get rid of their new facial hair additions any time soon.
“I've been kind of just letting it go since a long time, I guess, now,” Savard said. “It's starting to get pretty big, so hopefully I can keep it a few more months.”
So does everybody in Columbus, since that would mean the Blue Jackets made a deep postseason run.