Zach Werenski said he is ready to show what he can do as the top defenseman on the Columbus Blue Jackets after the departure of Seth Jones.
Werenski and Jones played together on the Blue Jackets’ top defense pair for most of Werenski’s five NHL seasons, but that partnership came to an end when Jones was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks on July 23.
“They talk about me, it’s always with Seth,” Werenski said on the “#CBJin30” podcast. “I want them to talk about me for me. I’m ready to go and I’m ready for this challenge. I’m ready to show what I can do as a player and more importantly what I can do with this team and bring us back to the playoffs.”
Werenski signed a six-year, $57.5 million contract extension Thursday; it has an average annual value of $9.58 million and runs through the 2027-28 season. He led Columbus defensemen with seven goals last season, and his 20 points in 35 games were second to Jones’ 28 (five goals, 23 assists) in 56 games.
Werenski missed the final 14 games of the season because of a sports hernia. He had surgery April 21 but is expected to be ready when training camp starts next month.
The Blue Jackets (18-26-12) tied the Detroit Red Wings for last in the eight-team Discover Central Division (18-26-12) and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2015-16. They went 3-7-4 after Werenski left the lineup.
Werenski’s 65 goals since entering the NHL in 2016-17 are tied with Alex Pietrangelo, Roman Josi and Victor Hedman for third-most among defensemen, behind Brent Burns (76) and Dougie Hamilton (72). Of those six players, Werenski has played the fewest games (335).
Jones on Wednesday signed an eight-year, $76 million contract extension ($9.5 million AAV) with the Blackhawks that begins next season.
“I have so much respect for him and he’s one of my best friends in hockey, I wish him nothing but the best,” Werenski said. “But for me, it’s a time now where I can show people what I can do on my own and be the hockey player I can be.”
The 24-year-old could be part of the discussion to be the next Columbus captain. Forward Nick Foligno, who had been captain since the 2015-16 season, was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 11.
“I haven’t thought about it too much,” Werenski said. “We have Boone [Jenner], we have ‘Gus’ (Gustav Nyquist), we have [Jakub] Voracek now, we have ‘Bjorky’ (Oliver Bjorkstrand). For me, leadership, there’s a hundred different ways you can lead. I’m not the most vocal guy in the room, I still won’t be the most vocal guy in the room. For me, it’s just leading on the ice and how I play and how hard we work in practice, things like that. Not shy by any means, but I’m not a guy that’s going to come in between periods and try and get the guys going. More so how I play on the ice.
“We don’t have a captain, not sure what they’re going to do, but there’s definitely options for them with the guys we have in the room.”