While forwards Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg
Jets and Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner of Toronto may be getting all the
attention when it comes to talk of the Calder Trophy, the best rookie in the
NHL right now may very well be defenceman Zach Werenski of Columbus. The
19-year-old was chosen with the eighth pick in the 2015 draft and has quietly
become one of the league’s best blueliners in his first season at the age of
19. Learning how to become an elite defenceman in the world’s toughest hockey
league typically takes several seasons to master, but the native of Grosse
Point, Michigan has made it look easy.
Paired with 22-year-old Seth Jones,
Werenski averages close to 22 minutes of ice time per game and excels on the
power play and penalty kill as well as five-on-five. November’s NHL rookie of
the month had racked up six goals and 15 assists for 21 points in 29 games by
December 18th and was a plus-seven. At his current pace, the
6-foot-2-inch, 212 lb. youngster is projected to finish the season with 18 goals
and 42 assists for 60 points and post a plus-21 mark.
Werenski grew up studying the play of
Detroit Red Wing hall of famer Nicklas Lidstrom and lists Drew Doughty of the
Los Angeles Kings as another huge inspiration. However, Werenski is making a
name for himself in the league with his stellar play and should easily set a
couple of rookie records for the Blue Jackets franchise this season. He’s
already tied the mark for points by a first-year defenceman with 21 which was
set by Ryan Murray in 2013/14, and should be able to top Rick Nash’s record of
39 points by a Columbus rookie which was set in 2002/03.
As a teenager, the left-shooting defenceman
played with the U.S. National team program and then finished high school at 17
so he could play for the University of Michigan. When he arrived in the NCAA he
was the youngest player in the league. He spent two years at the school as its
best defenceman and scored 20 goals and 41 assists in 71 games. When the 2015/16
college season ended, Werenski signed an amateur tryout with the Lake Erie
Monsters of the American Hockey League for just $5,000 and helped the club win
the Calder Cup championship with 14 points in 17 playoff games.
He believes the time spent riding the buses
in the AHL prepared him for the jump to the NHL and it looks like he made the
right move. He now leads his NHL team’s defencemen in possession statistics and
has the seventh-lowest turnover rate in the league for all blueliners. Columbus
first noticed Werenski when he played for the U.S. at the World Junior
Championships in 2013/14. But while he definitely interested them, he wasn’t
their first choice when the 2015 NHL Entry Draft got underway.
The Blue Jackets tried to move up to fourth
position in the draft, which was held by Carolina, as they wanted to select
fellow defenceman Noah Hanifin. However, they considered the Hurricanes’ asking
price to be too high and believed Werenski would still be available when it was
their turn to choose at number eight. Therefore, they perhaps landed the
potential 2016/17 rookie of the year by an odd twist of fate. There’s no
guarantee Werenski’s play won’t tail off as the season goes along, but he’s
already proven he’s got what it takes to become a premier NHL defenceman for
years to come.
Labels: Ian Palmer