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Photo: John SarayaPhoto: John Saraya

Werenski turns AHL experience into NHL success

by Tony Brown | AHL On The Beat

For most young hockey players, even top draft choices like 19-year-old Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski, the transition from amateur hockey to the pro game can be a lengthy one.

But the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for November 2016 took a faster route than many, one that ran through the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs in Northeast Ohio.

Fresh off two successful collegiate campaigns for the University of Michigan, Werenski — a 6-foot-2, 218-pound left-handed native of Grosse Pointe, Mich. — opted to test his mettle last spring in a playoff push, joining the Lake Erie Monsters for his first-ever professional action: seven regular-season games and a championship run through the AHL postseason.

That decision, according to Columbus’s first-round selection in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft (eighth overall), was one of the most important hockey choices he’s ever made.

“After talking with the Columbus management, my advisors and family, we wanted to do what was best for me in the long run,” explained Werenski. “Going to Cleveland and getting 25 games in the AHL and playing in the playoffs and winning the Calder Cup… It was everything we talked about. It’s unbelievable hockey at that point in the AHL season and for me it was huge. I gained a lot of confidence and just to say I won a Calder Cup is pretty special.

“I would say [coming to Cleveland] ranks pretty high in my best hockey decisions.”

After supplying one goal and a plus-2 rating in seven appearances for the Monsters at the tail end of the 2015-16 regular season, Werenski broke out in the playoffs with an eye-popping five-goal, 14-point showing in the Monsters’ remarkable 15-2 dash to Calder Cup glory.

Werenski says his experience in Cleveland was critically important to his being prepared for everyday life in the NHL.

“I think my time in Cleveland definitely helped my transition this year,” said Werenski. “Going into camp, I felt comfortable battling against a lot of the guys. When I got to Cleveland from college, I relied a lot on my stick and I learned quickly that in the AHL and in pro hockey you have to take the body. That’s something I kind of focused on and tried to do over the summer and I think that’s one thing I learned [in the AHL] that’s really helped me this year.”

Like any first-time pro, Werenski turned to the leaders in his dressing room to learn the ropes at the AHL level and Werenski says there were no better, or more important, role models for him than Cleveland captain and 14th-year veteran Ryan Craig and his top assistant, 11th-year blue-liner Jaime Sifers.

“Those guys were huge for me,” said Werenski. “From the second I got there, they made me feel comfortable, they made me feel a part of the team. They show up to work every day, they’re the hardest-working guys on the ice and everyone looks up to them. For me to be in the locker room with those guys and learn from them was so huge for me when I stepped into pro hockey.”

A bona fide NHL’er these days, Werenski has logged significant minutes for Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella and has factored into Columbus’s dream start to the 2016-17 season in a major way, ranking among the first-place Blue Jackets’ top scorers all year.

But flashing back to 2016, Werenski has a clear message to the Cleveland fans that helped the Monsters snap a 52-year Championship drought a season ago.

“I just want to say thanks for all the support; it was memorable and it made my time in Cleveland and in the AHL so much fun,” said Werenski. “Without [the fans] we wouldn’t have been able to do it, so thanks to you guys. It was truly special.”