Noah Hanifin and Zach Werenski were once defensive partners and roommates with the U.S. National Team Development Program, and the two friends planned to get together Monday night for dinner.
There’s a lot to talk about. Hanifin is halfway through his second NHL season with the Carolina Hurricanes, and Werenski is in his rookie season for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Both defensemen are 19. Both were high picks in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft — Hanifin taken fifth overall by the Canes and Werenski eighth by Columbus.
“We both have taken the same path in accelerating,” Hanifin said of their progression. “I’ve talked to him about the process, and I’m really happy to see him having a great year. He’s a big part of that team’s success.”
The Blue Jackets (29-9-4) lost their first two games of the season but soon were on a tear. A 16-game winning streak began at the end of November and extended into January — Columbus was 14-0-0 in December — pushed them to the top of the NHL, although the Blue Jackets have since dropped four of the past six including a 5-3 loss to Carolina.
Werenski stepped into the lineup and immediately produced on the blue line. The 6-foot-2, 218-pound D-man scored five goals in the first 14 games and while he has slowed a bit offensively, the former University of Michigan player led NHL rookies in power-play points (16) and assists (13) before Monday’s games and all rookie defensemen in points (26).
The Blue Jackets, who host the Canes (21-15-7) on Tuesday, continue to lead the league in power-play percentage (26.0) and Werenski, and his big left-handed shot, has done his part.
“I’ve always been an offensive guy, but I really didn’t know what I could do in this league.” Werenski said. “I think I have more responsibility than I expected, but I like that.”
Hanifin’s offensive numbers are more modest: two goals and 13 assists. He has been used in the Canes’ third defensive pairing and is averaging about 17 minutes of ice time per game, although Canes coach Bill Peters said he wants to add to that in the second half of the season.
“I think it would help him a lot and keep him in the flow and rhythm of the game,” Peters said.
Before the 2015 draft in Sunrise, Fla., the pecking order for defensemen was said to be Hanifin, Ivan Provorov from Russia and Werenski. Werenski said Hanifin “seemed a step above” him when the two were with the U.S. National Team in 2013-14.
“He’s mature for his age,” Werenski said. “I think it helped being D partners. I got to learn a lot from him, able to see what he was doing so good. He’s a special player.”
On draft night, the Canes took Hanifin. The Philadelphia Flyers chose Provorov with the seventh pick and Columbus took Werenski.
Hanifin, from Boston, passed up his sophomore season at Boston College to sign with Carolina and was in the Canes’ lineup on opening night. Werenski, a native of Grosse Pointe, Mich., stayed for another season with the Wolverines, then helped Cleveland of the AHL win a Calder Cup after the college season ended.
“The fact Noah was able to play in the NHL at 18 says volumes about him as a player and a person,” Werenski said.
Provorov, now in his rookie season, has three goals and 17 assists and has given the Flyers steady play.
Hanifin has gone through different partners this season, but playing with Matt Tennyson has had a stabilizing effect, Peters said.
“There’s been ups and downs,” Hanifin said. “It’s still a learning process. I’m only 19, and there are still things to learn and develop as a player.”
Hanifin lived with Nathan Gerbe and Gerbe’s family last season when Gerbe was with the Canes, eating the family meals. He’s on his own now, although he said he stays in touch with Gerbe, playing in Switzerland.
“It’s a little different, but I feel good, and I feel a lot more prepared for what to expect this year than last year,” Hanifin said.
As for Werenski, John Tortorella is a stern, demanding type, but the Blue Jackets coach had all good things to say about the rookie.
“Obviously you can see his skill, see his size,” Tortorella said. “The thing that impresses the most is there’s not a lot of maintenance to him. He wants to be coached, and he’s just a good solid kid.”
Sounds like good dinner conversation Monday night in Columbus.
Hurricanes at Blue Jackets
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Ohio