The Columbus Blue Jackets have started their February off strong. With a pair of wins against the Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres, the Blue Jackets enter Saturday’s matinee matchup with the Montreal Canadiens at hockey .500 with a 22-22-1 record.
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At the center of their recent play is defenseman Zach Werenski. He is among the leaders in the NHL in time on ice while playing the role of a true, number-one defenseman.
Werenski is involved with everything. He runs the point on the power play. He’s out there killing penalties too. If it’s an important situation in the game, he’s out there.
We caught up with Werenski on Thursday morning in Buffalo and chatted about a few different things. Among them, what has made their penalty kill so strong as of late? And then we dive into some other interesting topics including him almost being drawn into a fight this week. Here was our conversation.
Strong Penalty Killing
“I think it’s a way you can build momentum within the hockey game,” Werenski said. “I think whenever you have a big kill especially against a team like Washington you build momentum. Blocking shots, sacrificing your body I think just taking a lot of pride in that you’re involved in the game.”
What has made their recent run on the penalty kill more impressive is that the Blue Jackets have had to do it without two of their best penalty killers in Eric Robinson and Alex Texier. Each will miss multiple weeks due to injury. It’s a next man up mentality for them. This week, that has meant Jack Roslovic getting a chance on the penalty kill. Werenski thinks it’s great to have him involved. It could lead to other things later by being in the game.
“For a guy like Jack, I think the penalty kill is great. He’s not sitting on the bench for two minutes. He’s staying involved. His head is in the game. I thought he did a really good job on the penalty kill.”
The Blue Jackets have killed 26 of their last 30 penalties for a success rate of 86.7%. It’s clear they take a lot of pride on the kill. They use that to their advantage by grabbing momentum or even scoring shorthanded. It hasn’t mattered who’s been out there of late. The job is the same. But now, they’re executing. It’s showing in their recent results.
Fighting and the Code
Going back to Tuesday’s game in Washington, the Blue Jackets experienced a real bonding moment. Andrew Peeke laid a heavy hit on Evgeny Kuznetsov that upset the Capitals bench. Both Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson were looking for fights later in the game.
At the start of the third period, Wilson and Jakub Voracek where together at the circle. Wilson wanted to get at Peeke and Voracek wouldn’t let him. Earlier Ovechkin was looking for a fight and asked Werenski if he wanted to go. Werenski admitted it was a weird moment and didn’t engage in the fight.
This brings up the topic of “the code” and how to handle situations. Peeke’s hit on Kuznetsov was clean. But the Capitals were looking for a fight. Werenski shared his thoughts on the situation and how teams tend to view “the code” when it comes up. Interestingly enough, this was an area Werenski admitted the team needs to improve on moving forward.
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“I think guys are sticking up for their teammates. Here in our group we can do a better job of that,” Werenski said. “It just drags guys into the fight. It brings our whole team into it. A lot of times when you see dirty hits that’s when fights happen. For clean hits, guys just want to let the other team know that we’re not going to get pushed around and we’re not going to let other teams physically dominate you that night.”
“For Peeker, he had a few hits in that game that were clean. In their eyes, they just wanted to let him know that they don’t like that and they’re going to keep an eye on that. I think it’s something that happens in the game. I think for us we can do a better job of that on our team as well.”
Peeke’s Impact on His Teammates
Physical play has certainly been a question on this team. Who was going to step up when the situation called for it? So far, Peeke has answered that call and then some. In Werenski’s eyes, Peeke’s play and that hit has brought the team closer together.
Related: Blue Jackets News & Rumors: Peeke, Hofmann, Roslovic
“He always does a good job of playing physical,” Werenski said of Peeke. “It was a clean hit on Kuznetsov. He didn’t like it obviously. It brings about a scrum. It gets our team into it. Their bench was yelling at Peeker. At the start of the third, Voracek is at the faceoff with Wilson and he’s not letting him get to Peeker. It’s a thing where the team rallies behind it. We’re all in it together. I think for Peeker to do that and bring everyone into the fight with him I think it just helps the group. For that game and moving forward it just brings your group closer together.”
Werenski Learning Something New Everyday
With Seth Jones gone, Werenski is the clear-cut number-one defenseman on the Blue Jackets. He openly admits that there have been many moments that haven’t gone his way in learning just what it takes to be a number-one defenseman in the NHL. But he also says that he’s learning something new everyday.
“I think every night there’s something new that I learn. I think the biggest adjustment for me is really trying to figure out when to be offensive and when not to be. It’s a fine line now. My first few years it’s been all offense. I was called a rover. We had a veteran team up front with guys like Dubinsky and Hartnell. I could get away with more offensive stuff.”
“Now we’re younger with new faces. I’m trying to pick and choose when to go. Stuff like that it’s been a big learning experience for me. I’ve enjoyed it. Not every night is going to be good. There’s going to be stretches where games don’t go my way. I think it’s all part of the learning process. I think it just makes me a better player moving forward.”
Werenski might not be the player we’re used to seeing from year’s past, but that’s a good thing in this case. He’s embraced the challenge of learning this important role. There certainly has been mistakes made along the way and big ones at that. What’s important for him and the team is that he’s getting better everyday through these experiences.
Werenski might not challenge for 20 goals again. But he could easily score double-digits and be a more effective defender. He’s still learning the finer points and that’s ok. He’s exactly where he needs to be in the process. That will bode well for him now and in the future.