The Columbus Blue Jackets announced today that rookie defenseman Zach Werenski will not return this season after suffering facial fractures as the result of a puck impact last night. Werenski took a deflected Phil Kessel shot right to the face and left the game immediately, only to return later with a full shield and a few stitches. He’d play just 19 minutes, and will now have to watch his team try to claw back from a 3-0 series deficit.
It’s a disappointing end to what has been an outstanding first season for Werenski. Signed out of the University of Michigan last spring, Werenski made an immediate impact on the Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate, leading the then-Lake Erie (now Cleveland) Monsters to the Calder Cup Championship with 14 points in 17 playoff games. He carried that success over to his rookie NHL season, scoring 47 points in 78 games and generally leading the Blue Jackets to a breakout season. His play will likely garner many Calder trophy votes for rookie of the year, and should be a big part of their defense corps going forward.
For the Blue Jackets, it will be an even tougher task now to try and come back in their first-round series. Down 3-0 against the defending Stanley Cup Champions was hard enough, but with arguably their top defender out it becomes even more troubling. Instead, many fans will start to look towards next year where they will welcome back perhaps the best young blue line in the league, with Werenski, Seth Jones, David Savard and Ryan Murray all 26 or under. Gabriel Carlsson, recently signed and debuted will likely fight for a full-time spot in the NHL, and Jack Johnson will be entering his final year before becoming a UFA in the summer of 2018.
With almost all of their draft picks still intact—they will sacrifice a second-round pick either this year or next to Vancouver for John Tortorella—and more prospects on the way like Pierre-Luc Dubois, the Blue Jackets have set themselves up for sustained success for the next decade or more. Even if they are eliminated from the playoffs tomorrow night, Columbus will likely head into next season as one of the favorites in the Metropolitan Division, especially if they can find a way to clear some cap space this summer. With around $70MM—including David Clarkson’s $5.25MM—already dedicated to their roster for next season, they’ll need some room if they want to sign Alexander Wennberg and Josh Anderson to long-term extensions. Both players will be restricted free agents this summer, and deserve raises over the sub-$1MM salaries they earned this season.
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