Zach Werenski didn’t look taken aback. He took it in stride when somebody from the media during the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Tampa Bay Lightning asked him to describe what it’s like to see Seth Jones and Victor Hedman – “two elite defensemen” – share the ice.
Playing in Columbus, Werenski said, some might not know Jones as well as Hedman, a recent winner of the James Norris Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually to the NHL’s top defensive player.
“I think just watching those two go head to head and kind of go at it, obviously it's a team game, but I think you can kind of see what those two bring to each team and how valuable they are,” Werenski said 10 days ago.
Elsewhere, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen was stewing.
“I was a little bit offended when somebody asked him how it feels to be on the ice with such great defensemen as Seth Jones and Victor Hedman when whoever asked the question was talking to the leading goal-scorer in the National Hockey League for defensemen,” he said on Friday.
In Kekalainen’s mind, there’s no reason for anybody to separate Werenski from the top tier of defensemen, where Jones and Hedman reside. To the general manager, he deserved that recognition just as much as the other two.
Based on Werenski’s 2019-20 season, Kekalainen had a strong case. And nothing that went down in the playoffs could have changed his mind.
Werenski and Jones were the top defensive pairing on a team with an inconsistent offense that thrived based on its ability to limit clean chances usually found by powerful offensive teams and muck games up with physicality and non-stop effort. The uglier, the better for Columbus. And its top two defensemen had no issues conforming to what coach John Tortorella wanted. The same way they did the entire regular season, the duo took on the team’s identity throughout series against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning.
Each of them averaged at least 30 minutes on the ice per game throughout the playoffs, with Jones recording four points (one goal, three assists) and Werenski totaled three points (one goal, two assists).
“I think the top pairing that we have in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, I'll put it up against any pairing in the league,” Kekalainen said. “I think they're both good two-way players, both can jump in on the rush offense, blue line in the offensive zone but also can play against any top line in the league and compete defensively. I think that's what's undervalued when they put the nominations in for the Norris Trophy because I think it should be a little bit more about how you can play defense.”
Try to imagine, for one second, a Blue Jackets team without Jones and Werenski.
Because without them, Columbus’ stay in the hub city of Toronto wouldn’t have exactly been extended. The team relies so, so heavily on them to set the tone, spend expansive time on the ice and impact games all over, and they lived up to all expectations in the postseason – including in the five-overtime game to open the Tampa Bay series when they both played over an hour.
Throughout the 2019-20 season, the Blue Jackets needed everything they could get from Jones and Werenski, both of whom delivered. Jones, a three-time All-Star and one-time Norris Trophy finalist, led the Blue Jackets with 25:17 of ice time, adding six goals, 24 assists, 123 blocks and 62 hits in the regular season. Werenski put together his best season yet, leading the NHL’s defensemen – and his own team – with 20 goals in the regular season.
Their importance certainly didn’t wane over the past few weeks, either.
“I think Seth Jones, in particular, has showed that he is a very hard competitor to play against with his frame and ability to skate and defend,” Kekalainen said. “Zach's taken huge steps on the defensive side, as well, and 20 goals.”
Going forward, there’s some degree of uncertainty about their future together since the Blue Jackets are entering a seemingly pivotal offseason after back-to-back first-round Stanley Cup playoff exits. In order to acquire a skilled forward or two capable of creating scoring opportunities, Werenski’s name could get floated out as somebody who could be the center of a package that returns a bonafide star. He’s part of a deep defensive unit and could be an asset to a team looking to strengthen that position.
Yet as long as he’s in Columbus paired up with Jones, Tortorella has arguably the top defensive pairing in the NHL, which was again evident in this summer’s postseason.