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Hockey Recruiting Spotlight: Freshman Defensemen

Poor play from their defensemen kept the Wolverines out of the postseason a year ago. Can a new class of freshman provide stability to a mistake prone blueline?

Bruce Bennett

For the second straight year the Wolverines saw their NCAA tournament hopes dashed by defensive zone turnovers, costly mental errors and the inability to handle any kind of forechecking pressure. Red and the coaching staff have reloaded for another year by adding mobile puck movers and defense first players in hopes of patching the holes and returning to the postseason.

Zach Werenski
2013 Team: USA U-17
Position: Left Defense
Scoring Line: 7-24--31, 47 GP

After another year of defensive miscues Red Berenson and staff desperately needed to bring in a top pair blueliner for this class, but after losing Jared Walsh to the OHL and missing on high profile targets late in the recruiting period it became clear that there would be no shutdown defenseman in this class.

Then Berenson and staff pulled off the biggest recruiting coup of the year. A projected Top-15 pick in the 2015 NHL draft Werenski decided against the OHL, instead using the summer to finish his final year of high school and join Michigan's 2014 class.

Even at 17 years old, Werenski brings a complete defensive skill set to the table and has all of the tools to be a true #1 defenseman. An engulfing 1-on-1 defender, Werenski is an above average skater who excels in all three zones, can play 20+ minutes a game, as well as the offensive prowess to be a major contributor right away.

The Wolverines are counting on a defensive bounce back this season and Werenski will play a major role if they're going to improve. While it's hard to believe that one player can impact five other defensive positions, for two years Michigan faced similar issues on their blueline before the return of Jon Merrill made all of those problems disappear. If Zach Werenski is everything he's advertised to be, the Wolverines will be in great position to return to the postseason.

Coach Berenson has said that his top two left pairings are set with Werenski and Mike Downing. Whether he skates with Kevin Lohan or Brennan Serville will have to wait until opening night.

Sam Piazza
2013 Team: Wichita Falls (NAHL)
Position: Left Defense
Scoring Line: 11-26--37, 58 GP

Another late addition to the class, Piazza has had an up and down journey through his recruitment before coming to Michigan.

Originally a Boston College commit for 2012, Piazza was asked to reclassify to 2013 after a concussion forced him to sit out his season in the USHL. When he was cleared to play again, Piazza struggled to return to form and was traded to the NAHL. After decommitting from Boston College the coaches scouted Piazza at the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament, invited him to Ann Arbor for an official visit and offered him on the spot.

Piazza is billed as a defensive blueliner, but has worked to improve his offensive game playing in the NAHL. A strong skater with excellent vision and the hockey IQ to quarterback a powerplay, if Piazza can return to where he was before his injury his skill set will allow him to be the smooth skating two-way defensemen Michigan is looking for to solidify their bottom pairing.

As a freshman Piazza will compete with Nolan De Jong and Cutler Martin for the final spot on the 3rd pair and as the extra defenseman.

Cutler Martin
2013 Team: Tri-City (USHL)
Position: Left Defense
Scoring Line: 1-5--6, 23 GP

The first of the four defensemen in this class to commit, East Lansing native Cutler Martin brings a stay-at-home style of play to the ice with limited offensive upside and a reputation as a heavy hitter.

Martin comes to Ann Arbor behind De Jong and Piazza after a concussion limited him to just 23 games last season. It's been almost a year since he has seen any game action, so as a freshman his projection is leaning towards a redshirt while he adjusts to the speed of the college game.

Niko Porikos
2013 Team: Hamilton (OJHL)
Position: Left Defense
Scoring Line: 9-12--21, 51 GP

The departure of walk-ons Mike Szuma and Spencer Hyman left an opening on the roster for Ann Arbor native Niko Porikos. A former teammate of Spencer Hyman in the OJHL as well as Cutler Martin, Max Shuart and Tony Calderone with Victory Honda, Porikos is a bigger defenseman who fits the role of a stay-at-home blueliner. His offensive skill set has improved but at the college level Porikos isn't expected to be an offensive contributor.

With Downing and Werenski locked into the top two left pairings and Nolan De Jong, Sam Piazza and Cutler Martin battling for the final spot, barring a linechart catastrophe the coaches will do everything they can to redshirt Porikos.