Blue Jackets Sunday Gathering: Zach Werenski endures the longest goal drought of his career

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A collection of notes, insights, ruminations and did-you-knows gathered throughout the week that was for the Columbus Blue Jackets:

Item No. 1: Werenski’s drought

Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski pounced on a loose puck in the slot and fired off his backhand from 15 feet away at 13:45 of the second period. It was his second shot on goal amid a flurry of chances for the Blue Jackets.

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was off balance and tumbling backward in his crease, but still managed to reach up with his glove and snare the puck for a clean save. Werenski looked incredulously up into the rafters of Nationwide Arena, a familiar pose of late.

He’s continued to pile up assists at his usual rate — his third-period helper in Saturday’s 4-2 loss was his 28th in only 39 games — but Werenski hasn’t scored a goal since Oct. 20 vs. Calgary, the Blue Jackets’ fourth game of the season.

That 37-game goal-scoring drought is the longest of his 455-game career. Asked if he feels snakebitten — he’s gone exactly 100 shots on goal without beating a goalie — Werenski smiled and shook his head.

“I’m past that point a little bit now,” he said. “It’s been almost 40 games, right? I’m used to putting pucks in the net. I’ve done that my whole career and right now it’s just not going in. I’m getting chances, so I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.

“It’s the game of hockey, right? At some point, they’ll start falling for me. But I’m contributing as much as I can.”

That much is true.

Werenski was arguably the best player on the ice in Saturday’s game. He had nine shot attempts, including five on goal. He played a game-high 26:04 and had three takeaways, two blocked shots and no giveaways.

Despite missing 13 games this season with two injuries, Werenski is tied for 13th among NHL defensemen with 28 assists.

But just one goal. Previously, his longest drought was a 30-game stretch late in the 2018-19 season.

Incredibly, he hasn’t scored a power-play goal since March 5, 2022 … almost two years. (In fairness, he missed all but 13 games last season.)

Werenski’s best offensive weapon is his heavy, sneaky-quick wrist shot. He’s usually quite adept at sneaking it through traffic.

In his first six seasons in the NHL (2016-17 to 2021-22), Werenski scored 76 goals. That’s the seventh most in the league among defensemen during that span, trailing only Norris Trophy-types Roman Josi, Brent Burns, Victor Hedman, Dougie Hamilton, John Carlson and Alex Pietrangelo.

“If I was younger, in my first few years, I’d be pretty upset and rattled by it,” Werenski said. “I’ve gone through streaks before, so I’ve been through it. But this is my longest. I’m trying to get through it, just get one to the back of the net.

“It’s a funny game. Pucks go in from the blue line, they go in from in close. Right now, none of them are going in for me. So just keep shooting and making plays.”

Item No. 2: Memorable trip

Most NHL players spent their midseason break in the Caribbean. That includes Blue Jackets forwards Yegor Chinakhov, Kirill Marchenko, Alexandre Texier and Dmitry Voronkov, who headed to Cancun, Mexico, to bask in the sun. The highlight of the trip was a fishing expedition that resulted in a bigger catch than expected.

Much bigger.

“We were thinking mostly small fish, or like, tuna,” Texier said. “That’s what I was thinking, anyway. But I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first experience in something like this.”

The group had several lines in the water a few miles off the coast, and it wasn’t long before they had a bite. Texier said they all got excited when the guide told them, “Guys, something is there.” And they were all slightly freaked out when the guide felt the line and read the situation.

“He could tell by the weight of it and the strength of it that it was pretty big,” Texier said. “After like two minutes, he said, ‘Guys, I think it’s a shark.’”

Chinakhov, Marchenko, Texier and Voronkov took all turns trying to reel it in, but they kept switching off because their arms were getting weary.

It was, in fact, a shark. To be specific, it was a bull shark, weighing 440 pounds and measuring more than six feet long. Bull sharks are regarded as among the most aggressive and unpredictable of sharks, and their bite is the most forceful.

Most of the shoreline shark attacks are bull sharks. Would you want an angry bull shark on your boat?

“I was kinda scared, to be honest,” Texier said.

Texier said he wasn’t sure what became of the shark. No, they didn’t give it a name, but Texier did keep a souvenir.

“I have one of its teeth,” Texier said. “It’s huge. I’m going to make a necklace out of it.”

Item No. 3: Snacks

Where does the likelihood of an outdoor game stand between the Blue Jackets, the NHL and Ohio State, which would host the game at the venerable Ohio Stadium? We were reassured this week that all three parties are continuing to work on a deal that would bring a Stadium Series game to Columbus as soon as next season. They all insist that, while it’s headed in the right direction, the deal is not yet settled. NHL executive VP Bill Daly told The Athletic last week that no announcement is imminent, even though the league announced that Chicago would host St. Louis at Wrigley Field next January in the Winter Classic.

This will be outdoor game No. 7 for Chicago, most in the NHL. Pittsburgh is next (six), followed by Boston and Philadelphia (five each). The only three NHL franchises that haven’t played outdoors are Arizona, Columbus and Florida.

This week’s Sunday Gathering trivia question: Werenski is beyond snakebitten, he said, during his 37-game goal drought. But which Blue Jackets defenseman went the longest stretch without scoring a goal?

Chinakhov, who has begun to emerge as an offensive threat this season, will miss at least Tuesday’s game in Ottawa because of an upper-body injury, coach Pascal Vincent said. Chinakhov was high-sticked by Tampa Bay’s Erik Cernak at 5:22 of the second period on Saturday. He played one more shift before heading off to the room and did not return. It’s a bigger loss than most will realize. Since Dec. 8, Chinakhov, 23, leads the Blue Jackets in goals (11), is tied for first in points (19, with Johnny Gaudreau) and is second in shots on goal (55), with as many game-winning goals (one) as minor penalties. He’s also playing 16:47 per game, fourth among forwards.

The NHL won’t hold an All-Star Game next season. Instead, it’ll stage the 4 Nations Face-off between the U.S., Canada, Finland and Sweden during a 10-day run in February. Obviously there’s a long way to go before rosters are finalized, but look for at least two Blue Jackets to be involved: Werenski (U.S.) and forward Patrik Laine (Finland). You’d have to think Johnny Gaudreau (U.S.) would be a consideration with a strong start next season.

The Blue Jackets and Lightning will play the final game of their season series on April 9 in Tampa Bay, one day short of the fifth anniversary of Game 1 in their 2019 first-round playoff series. That was, quite obviously, the high-water mark for the Blue Jackets franchise. The Lightning played in the next three Stanley Cup Finals, winning the Cup in 2020 and ’21. Only three players who dressed that postseason for the Blue Jackets remain on the roster: Boone Jenner, Werenski and Texier. Meanwhile, eight Lightning players from that postseason remain with the club: Cernak, Anthony Cirelli Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Mikhail Sergachev, Steven Stamkos and Vasilevskiy.

On Nov. 30, the Blue Jackets had the second-best penalty kill in the NHL at 89.2 percent. Since then, including the two goals on three power plays they allowed vs. Tampa Bay on Saturday, the Blue Jackets’ kill is dead last in the NHL at a woeful 66.7 percent. The correlation, at first, seemed to be Jenner’s absence (broken jaw) from the lineup, but it’s actually gotten worse since he returned on Jan. 19. In that span, the Jackets have killed only 13 of 21 (61.9 percent) power plays.

Defenseman Adam Boqvist returned to the lineup Saturday after missing the final three games before the All-Star break. On Jan. 25 in Calgary, Boqvist was having a conversation on the bench with his partner, Werenski, when a stray puck off Cole Sillinger’s stick smacked him in the mouth, knocked out multiple teeth and sent him tumbling backward off the bench. Boqvist is still his smiling, amiable self, but that smile takes some getting used to. Here’s his interview with Bally Sports Ohio’s Dave Maetzold:

AHL Cleveland wraps up an almost-unheard-of 10-game homestand when they host Grand Rapids on Tuesday. Win or lose against the Griffins, the long stretch of home games — the Monsters haven’t played on the road since Jan. 19 — has been a missed opportunity. A 4-1 loss to Charlotte on Saturday drops Cleveland to 3-5-1 on the homestand. They’ve lost their grip on the AHL’s North Division, too, and now sit in second place behind Syracuse.

Nick Blankenburg has been stuck in the AHL most of the season because of the glut of one-way contracts among depth defensemen in Columbus, but the knock on Blankenburg early in his career has been his inability to stay healthy. He missed Saturday’s game against Charlotte due to a concussion, at least the second one he’s had this season. In 19 games with AHL Cleveland, Blankenburg has 3-9-12 and a plus-7 rating with 20 penalty minutes.

With Chinakhov injured and out Tuesday vs. Ottawa, the Blue Jackets may need to recall an extra forward from AHL Cleveland. The only extra forward for Saturday’s game was Emil Bemstrom. The Blue Jackets will return to Columbus after that game, but they leave again later in the week for a three-game swing through California.

This week’s trivia answer: The Blue Jackets defenseman who endured the longest goal-scoring drought was Scott Lachance, who signed with the Blue Jackets as a free agent in 2002. He played two full seasons — 138 games — without ever scoring a goal for Columbus. Not that Lachance was an offensive defenseman by any stretch, but he had 31 goals in 681 career NHL games with the New York Islanders, Montreal and Vancouver before signing with Columbus.

The Blue Jackets allowed 3.11 goals per game in 2001-02, the second-highest figure in the NHL. (It was a different time, clearly.) In response, they spent handsomely in free agency the next summer, signing veterans Luke Richardson and Lachance. They actually allowed more goals the following season — 3.21 per game — despite adding the two veterans. Now, more than 20 years later, the Blue Jackets are in a similar fix. They gave up a franchise-record 4.01 goals per game last season, then decided to bulk up the blue line over the summer. They traded a first-round pick to Philadelphia for Ivan Provorov, then traded a third-round pick to New Jersey for Damon Severson before signing Severson to an eight-year, $50 million contract. The net gain: .34 goals against per game. The Jackets, at 3.67 goals against per game, are 31st in the NHL, exactly where they finished last season.

(Photo of Zach Werenski: Sergei Belski / USA Today)

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