The Columbus Blue Jackets needed a new direction. Thanks to a bevy of moves coupled with the NHL Draft, the Blue Jackets are heading in a new direction. That direction was good enough for one of their best players to commit to them long term.
On Thursday, the Blue Jackets gave defenseman Zach Werenski a six-year extension that will make him one of the highest paid defensemen in the NHL. His new cap hit starting in 2022-23 of $9.583 million is the third biggest cap hit amongst all defensemen. This signing came to be because of a belief in the plan the Blue Jackets have established.
Believing in the Plan
As this offseason began, many folks including some on the team were wondering what was going to happen next. Which direction were the Blue Jackets going to go in? Was it heading for a reload or a full rebuild?
Many veterans were gone. Most recently Seth Jones and Cam Atkinson found themselves on new teams. How long before the Blue Jackets could get back into the running for the playoffs? Thanks to Jarmo Kekalainen’s plan, it will take some time but the framework is clearly in place.
Werenski spoke to the media on Friday about his new contract and commitment to the team. He admitted that he believes in where the Blue Jackets are going. That was a big motivation in signing.
“In terms of the changes, we’ve seen it time and time again in Columbus. Guys come and go and it’s part of the business,” Werenski said. “But after seeing what they did last week with the draft and the players we got and the direction this team is heading with (Brad) Larsen, (Jakub) Voracek, Booner (Boone Jenner), just talking with the guys you know I fully believe in it. I believe in the plan and I think this thing is heading in the right direction.”
It is very easy to see why there is excitement around the Blue Jackets now. They landed young defensemen in Adam Boqvist and Jake Bean. They added Voracek to help their top-six in a more dynamic way. And then they added high-quality pieces in the first round of the draft in Kent Johnson, Cole Sillinger and Corson Ceulemans.
Werenski needed to see a clear path and plan. The Blue Jackets executed on that plan. They were able to get Werenski to sign so he is under team control for seven more seasons.
Kekalainen Prioritized Werenski
As soon as Jones was traded to the Blackhawks, Kekalainen went right to work on Werenski. He is now the clear-cut number-one defenseman in Columbus and will be looked upon to take on a bigger leadership role. Kekalainen loves the entire package Werenski brings.
Here is what Kekalainen had to say about signing Werenski to a long-term deal.
“Zach Werenski has been one of the top defensemen in the National Hockey League over the past five years and we are thrilled that he will continue to be a Blue Jacket and the leader of our blueline for at least the next seven years,” Kekalainen said. “As talented as Zach is and as much as he has achieved so early in his career, he is an even better person and will be a foundational player for our club as we move forward.”
Werenski Made a Believer
Werenski was clearly part of the master plan of Kekalainen’s. He will now get a chance to demonstrate what he can do away from the shadow of Jones. With a 20-goal season already under his belt, Werenski’s early career has been nothing short of spectacular.
With Werenski now in the fold for seven more seasons, that should help put to rest the idea that star players do not want to stay in Columbus. Werenski is in. Jenner is in. Oliver Bjorkstrand put himself in last season. Part of Kekalainen’s plan was to have a star commit to show that the Blue Jackets will be a desirable destination in time.
In order for this plan to see itself through in full, the Blue Jackets will eventually have to start winning games. It could be tough for a season or two with this new direction, but the pieces are in place for them to eventually get back to where they want to go.
But above all else, there is a plan. Werenski saw what the Blue Jackets did and deemed it enough to commit himself to staying. They used trades and the draft to gain an advantage.
The Blue Jackets made a believer out of Werenski. All it took was a well thought out plan and some brilliant execution. It’s for that reason we could come to remember this offseason for a very long time.
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I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2022-23 season will mark nine seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager. Please take note of the updated Twitter handle: @mark_scheig.