Rookie Blueliner Learning On The Fly

By: 
Jess Myers

 

It was almost New Year's Eve, and Zach Werenski is playing a key role on the hottest team in the NHL. But he is also a 19-year-old kid who one year earlier was wearing a Team USA sweater at the IIHF World Junior Championship.

So, he can be forgiven if, for a moment or two, he thought of being somewhere else.

"I loved that tournament both years I played in it. All of my friends are playing in it now, so it's something I'm keeping up on, and kind of wish I was there for," Werenski said after a Columbus Blue Jackets practice.

At about the same time as Werenski's former teammates were securing an American gold medal, his current red, white and blue-clad team from Ohio was winning a franchise record 16 games in a row.

Fiery Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella has long been known as one who demands much from his players, and he said he's been getting plenty from one rookie defenseman in particular.

"This is a kid who's still 19 and is very mature mentally," said Tortorella, who coached Team USA last fall at the World Cup.

"Over 20 minutes a game in the National Hockey League. He's brought a little bit of a push to what I call the engine of our team, on our back end. I think our young back end is going to be a good one for a long time, and he's certainly at the forefront of that."

Werenski is less than a year removed from being a part of another talented blueline crew, for a University of Michigan team that won the Big Ten tournament and finished just one win shy of the Frozen Four last season.

Hailing from the Detroit suburbs, Werenski was a top 10 pick of the Blue Jackets in 2015, after a stellar run with the USA Hockey National Team Development program. He was named the Big Ten's top defensive player after his second season at Michigan, and made the jump to the NHL with just a brief stop in the minors.

When he was handed a key role on the power play by Tortorella, it was unexpected, but now makes sense to Werenski's Columbus teammates.

"It's pretty impressive for a kid who's 19 to step in and do that. It shows his IQ and his abilities. Now I'm not surprised at what he can do," said Columbus captain Nick Foligno of Werenski's immediate impact one of the NHL's top teams.

Still, rookies make mistakes, and Werenski admits to a few. But he says behind Tortorella's gruff exterior is a coach who trusts his young players and has them learning and growing.

"He's been great for us young guys. He's a lot more patient than people think and doesn't really care about mistakes as long as you're working hard," Werenski said.

"He's always said if you're going to make a mistake, do it on the over-aggressive side. So, it's been awesome for me."

 

Jess Myers is a freelance writer based in the St. Paul suburb of Inver Grove Heights, Minn.

 

Issue: 
2017-03

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