The Lake Erie Monsters are in the midst of a historic run for their franchise.
They have never been past the first round in the AHL playoffs before this season. They now embark to California starting Saturday night to open the Western Conference Finals against the Ontario Reign.
Many things have stood out for the Monsters. They have solid goaltending, led by the tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Anton Forsberg, each of whom saw some playing time in the NHL this season. They have a nice mix of veterans and youngsters with skill.
They also have one youngster in particular that has taken his game to a new level in these playoffs. We knew he was good. But I’m not sure we realized just how good he is. Enter Zach Werenski.
After Michigan’s season ended in the NCAA Tournament, the Blue Jackets signed Werenski to an ATO. This way, he was eligible to play with the Monsters in the AHL playoffs.
Werenski has made his time in Cleveland count, and then some.
10 points for Werenski-CBJ tied for most by a U19 player in AHL playoffs forward or d. Eldred Kobussen did same in 1944 per @eliteprospects.
— Corey Pronman (@coreypronman) May 17, 2016
Werenski’s 10 points not only lead the Monsters in scoring, it’s the second-highest point total remaining in these playoffs. For someone who hasn’t reached their 19th birthday yet, how can you not be impressed?
And yet, this almost didn’t happen.
Let’s turn the clock back to a Friday night in June 2015. The NHL Draft was all about Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. As it turns out, one of the most important decisions of the night belonged to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
We knew they needed defensive help. It was interesting to see how they would handle themselves from the eighth spot. Noah Hanifin was the consensus number one defenseman. Below him were Werenski and Ivan Provorov. Hanifin is likely gone by the time Columbus picked. But if they didn’t trade up, would their guy be there still? We got an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at what GM Jarmo Kekalainen did that night.
— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) July 23, 2015
Who could forget that night? Kekalainen kept saying they would get their guy. But who was that guy? He called GM’s Ron Francis and Ray Shero, to see about trading up, presumably to draft Hanifin.
But Kekalainen had a hunch.
“I think I’m going to take my 77% chance”, Kekalainen told the table he was sitting at. Although the chance was there to trade up, he saw a better alternative. Even though a chance existed that his plan could backfire, Kekalainen was confident he would get his guy. As it turns out, he did. It was Werenski.
Sometimes, it’s the things you don’t do that ultimately work out for the best. The Blue Jackets could have given up as many as four draft picks to trade up. Kekalainen stood his ground and got a great payoff. He brought a proven winner in Werenski into the fold, without having to sacrifice any other draft picks.
This moment will go down as one of the more important decisions in Blue Jackets history. It gives a jolt to the Lake Erie Monsters. It also ensures an important spot on the Blue Jackets roster has stability for many seasons to come.
So as we get ready to see the Monsters in the final four of the AHL, let’s never forget the night that Kekalainen and crew turned down the chance to trade up all the while landing the guy the wanted. It’s one of the main reasons we are here watching them play hockey late in May.
77%. It will live in Blue Jackets and Monsters lore forever.