For nearly four full years Seth Jones has seen the way the puck comes off Zach Werenski’s stick, and it still impresses him.
“He's very efficient with it,” Jones said recently. “It's quick. It's on and off his blade. It's fast and it's very accurate.”
And for the past year or so, it’s been better than ever before.
Werenski had what he described as “kind of” a “hot stick.” He can drop the qualifier, though. It was indisputably a hot stick. Hotter than anybody else’s in the NHL, if we’re comparing.
When commissioner Gary Bettman abruptly paused the season on March 12 due to the worsening coronavirus pandemic, Werenski was in the middle of his best season as a scorer yet. The 23-year-old in his fourth year playing for the Blue Jackets had already set a personal best of 20 goals, with 14 coming at even strength, five on the power play and one when his team was short-handed. The 20 goals were the most among defensemen in the entire NHL and put him just behind Oliver Bjorkstrand (21) to rank second on his own team.
Jones called him “one of the best offensive defensemen I've seen.” Since Werenski remained healthy on a team beset by injuries, Jones said he wasn’t sure if the Blue Jackets would be “in the same position” without him.
Werenski’s offensive outburst played a not-so-small role in Columbus surprising some with a stronger-than-expected year, even though he spent about a month on the ice without Jones, his fellow defenseman who suffered an injury in February.
“I'm not too sure how many more goals I would have scored – maybe a couple – but I was pretty happy to score 20,” Werenski said. “I'd come into the year with goals in mind. I thought 20 was the number I could reach at some point, whether it was 17, 18, 22. I thought after my 16-goal season, I thought that was kind of where I should be. To hit 20 against Vancouver at home, I played three more games and then the season ended, it was kind of unfortunate but I was happy with 20. I guess I don't know what would have happened the last 12 games, but 20 was a good number.”
The freshly mulleted and mustachioed defenseman will now grab that stick, put in in the kindle to heat it back up and take it into the postseason when he and the Blue Jackets meet the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers beginning on Aug. 2.
There, he’ll be reunited with Jones, who has been out of game action since suffering an ankle injury during a Feb. 8 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. Early in training camp, John Tortorella said Werenski and Jones will be paired up again when the postseason begins, giving Columbus a pairing of players who were both recently listed as top-10 defensemen in the league by the NHL Network. They also spend time the past two weeks working together when practicing the power play.
Jones has already twice finished top-10 in James Norris Memorial Trophy voting, and Werenski’s improvement could have him trending toward that conversation.
“More and more, he's becoming a complete player,” John Tortorella said. “We've spent a lot of time, as we've talked about over the past couple of years, wanting more out of him defensively. I think he's found himself into where – and I know he's put a lot of concentration into what we've asked him to do just to be a stiffer player defensively – but I think he's found himself comfortable now in understanding what's expected of him away from the puck. But he's also gotten more aggressive with the puck.
“It's still a young guy we're talking about, still developing as a player. I think he's found himself to find that right alley, as far as I need to do this to get the puck back to work with my strength going the other way.”
In his quest to become a better defensive player, and thus an improved all-around player, Werenski says he believes he “took a step forward” this year.
“There's a lot more I think I can get to, a higher defensive ceiling I can get to,” Werenski said. “I think I'm working at it, I'm trying to get better, but I'm happy it didn't take away from my offense and I'm happy I can contribute on almost a nightly basis and put the puck in the net and help this team. I think you guys have seen it. Since I've got here, it's been a work in progress for me to be a 200-foot player. It doesn't happen easily. It's a lot of hard work. But I'm definitely working to continue to grow defensively and hopefully be really good on both sides of the puck.”
That upward trajectory, he hopes, will factor into what happens when he and his team take the ice in Toronto. He’ll once again be reunited with a slew of teammates he saw get injured over the course of the regular season.
With most of them back, Werenski and the Blue Jackets will try to make a run, beginning with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
“ I think this is where we feel we should be is as a playoff team every single season,” Werenski said. “That's the right attitude to have. But at the end of the day, we've only got out of the first round once, and technically we're in the play-in rounds this summer, so we have some more work to do against Toronto, in our eyes, to make the playoffs. We're hungry and we're ready to go, and I think it's been showing in training camp.”
His play in August – and potentially beyond – will go a long way to determining if the Blue Jackets make it as far as he’d like.