Zach Werenski said he wants to take a big step this season for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“My goal should be trying to be the best defenseman in the League,” Werenski said at the NHL/NHLPA Player Media Tour in Chicago in September. “I think every year you go into a season with personal goals, team goals in mind but for me, at this point in my career, I’m 24, I’ve played five years, I’ve experienced the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs, I done all that and now I want to take my game to another level.
“Will it ever happen? I don’t know. Maybe. Might not. But that’s my goal going into every season now and I think it’s possible.”
Werenski has the security of a six-year, $57.5 million contract extension on July 29 that begins next season. But he’ll be adjusting to life without longtime defense partner Seth Jones, who was traded from the Blue Jackets to the Chicago Blackhawks on July 23.
Jones played with Werenski from 2016 through last season and said he was, “definitely the best offensive guy, best defenseman I’ve played with in my career.”
He said Werenski won’t have a problem adjusting to everything.
“He has the ability on the back end to lead a team offensively, believe it or not,” Jones said. “When he skates the puck up the ice, he has such a presence out there. He has a great shot, can make things happen on the rush, has good vision. He’s going to be playing in all situations, power play, penalty kill, like he was before, and I don’t think he’ll have a hard time at all handling it.”
Werenski is entering his sixth season with the Blue Jackets, who selected him No. 8 in the 2015 NHL Draft. He has scored 189 points (65 goals, 124 assists) in 335 regular-season games and 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 29 playoff games. He scored 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) in 35 games for Columbus last season.
Werenski did not play after April 8 last season because of a sports hernia that required surgery. Coach Brad Larsen, who replaces John Tortorella after serving as an assistant for seven seasons, said he challenged Werenski on a few things, including his conditioning, entering training camp. He said Werenski hasn’t disappointed.
“He came back, and he blew it away,” Larsen said. “The conversations are great, but your actions tell me everything and he came back in tremendous shape. You can tell physically he looks different. His attitude, I can tell he’s starting to grow into that leader that we know he can be, so I think he’s ready to embrace that role. I’m expecting Zach to have a great year.”
Werenski is one of two veterans in an otherwise young group of defensemen for Columbus, which finished eighth in the Discover Central Division and missed the playoffs last season after qualifying the previous four seasons. The Blue Jackets open the regular season against the Arizona Coyotes at Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Thursday.
Outside of him and Scott Harrington, who has played in 203 NHL games with the Blue Jackets, Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus’ other defensemen each has two seasons or fewer of NHL experience.
The onus will be heavier. Werenski has to help indoctrinate a new partner. In preseason games he’s played with Adam Boqvist, who was acquired from Chicago in the trade for Jones, or Jake Bean, who was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes for a second-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft on July 23.
Werenski will likely play more minutes in every situation after averaging 24:22 per game last season, second on the Blue Jackets to Jones (25:14). He led the team in averaging 2:10 of power-play time per game and was third on the team in averaging 1:52 on the penalty kill, behind Jones (1:58) and defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov (1:57).
“I think for him when you’re logging 25, 26 minutes every night and you’re taking the hardest assignments every single game, you need that consistency in the offensive side of the puck and defending and making sure you’re a hard guy to play against and really helping out all the other ‘D’ too,” Larsen said. “We’ve got some young guys back there. Be a leader on the ‘D’ corps. That’s another role that he’s ready to embrace.”
Is there pressure on Werenski? Sure, but he’s ready to tackle it.
“I’m still young and it’s obviously going to be a learning curve for me without Seth being there now and what not, but I’m excited for it,” Werenski said. “I think if you don’t want to embrace it, if you don’t want pressure, you’re in the wrong business.”
NHL.com Independent Correspondent Craig Merz contributed to this report.