Earlier this summer, Zach Werenski had a major decision to make: return to the NTDP and experience his senior year of high school, or go for a GED to graduate early and come play for Red Berenson’s team in Ann Arbor.
With the Big Ten tournament and the Frozen Four looming, he is staring stardom in the face.
The freshman defenseman has had an absolutely outstanding season to date, scoring eight goals and 23 points in 28 games. As of NHL Central Scouting’s 2015 midterm rankings, Werenski is the sixth best draft-eligible prospect in the country, the second best blue-liner behind only Boston College’s Noah Hanifin.
The first thing that meets the eye with Zach Werenski is just how big he is. Tall (6' 2"), broad-shouldered, and well-built (214 lbs.), it often comes across as a complete shock that he is all of seventeen years old.
"I try my best to do all of the little things right to help the team win," Werenski said of his game. "I'm open to work on things … here I'm working on defensive zone. If there's something I need to work on I'll definitely do that with any team. I'm a two-way defenseman; it's defense first but whenever I get a chance to join the offense I'll try and create offense."
One would expect to see a smooth-skating and overly mature defenseman playing for a Canadian junior team or even heading to New England to star for a marquee school in Hockey East. It's amazing to think that he's still eligible for the U18 NTDP team. Making the jump to college hockey has been a welcoming challenge to Werenski.
"At the time I didn't have any doubt when I made the decision; I kind of knew this was the fit for me," he said. "I was just finishing high school in August, now I'm playing college hockey and taking college classes. Right now where I'm at with the season, and personally, I'm so happy I made that decision."
Werenski feels fortunate that he is in his current situation, but even more so that he’s in a place where he can actively get help and seek advice from older players that have already gone through the draft.
At the same time, he believes it’s much different going through his draft year at Michigan than hearing the noise from his NTDP teammates in the locker room at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube. There’s nothing that Zach Werenski feels he can do to control what happens on draft day, but he understands that he just has to play his game and let everything fall into place.
"He’s a young player who just plays more consistently than most young players," coach Red Berenson said. "You take most freshmen and they have trouble bringing it every night and every game, and he’s not one of those."
There are times where Werenski's youth is exposed, however. He occasionally makes the wrong look coming out of his own zone, he is susceptible to getting beaten wide with speed, and he still fails to use his body when appropriate. One of these glaring instances unfortunately was given special attention on the world stage.
During the New Year's Eve tilt at World Juniors against Canada, Werenski was badly beaten by Connor McDavid on a goal by Curtis Lazar. Werenski took the wrong route to defend McDavid, and tried to simply play the puck rather than the body, a rookie mistake. McDavid made a power move, and threw it to the front of the net where Lazar tapped it home.
"I think my biggest weakness that I've been working on this year has definitely been defensive zone stuff," he said, "the whole game in general: gap control, being more engaged in the d-zone, learning where my man is at all times, stick on puck, just every little thing defensively is what I've worked on."
Since that game in Montreal, however, he has been a completely different player. His strengths continue speak for themselves, at times making him the unequivocal best player on the ice for the Wolverines. An NHL team will be drafting a raw player with an incredibly high talent ceiling, and that includes his intellectual capacity.
Werenski's patience with the puck is unrivaled among most 17 year-olds. With his game comes fluidity on par with that of a speed skater gliding in the straits and nearly touching the ice in the corners. He often compares his style of play to those of former Michigan standouts Jack Johnson and Jacob Trouba.
"One of the strengths I've tried to carry over into this year would be using the puck to my advantage," he said. "I like having the puck on my stick, and quarterbacking the powerplay and carrying it up when I can."
The awe-inspiring thing is that Werenski rarely, if ever, messes up on offense.
Many had written the team off entirely thanks to several departures of key defensemen over the past few seasons. He is the answer to the concerns of many about Michigan's thin back end to begin the year, but he'll never fully admit it.
"We're all a team and every piece is important so I just go out and play and help as much as I can," Werenski said. "The coaches have trust in me and my defensive partner Kevin Lohan makes it easy on me, he's been great."
Despite how much he has been immersed over this season, Werenski wasn't always aware of college hockey too much. His coach with Belle Tire, former Red Wings standout Doug Brown, always would talk to him about Boston College. Brown’s brother, Greg, now coaches the likes of Noah Hanifin and Thatcher Demko under the long-tenured and legendary Jerry York. BC, while not a huge influence, served as Werenski’s introduction to the college level.
As time passed, the Grosse Pointe native would attend Michigan vs. MSU games at Joe Louis Arena, culminating with family trips to the Great Lakes Invitational.
Eventually, he was convinced about the college game. Now, he's suiting up for one of the winningest college hockey coaches of all-time, something he had trouble describing.
"It's something you can't put into words," he said. "You hear about (Red Berenson) so much being from Michigan, he won his 800th game this year and it was good to be a part of that team. The whole coaching staff is great."
Regarding the appropriate direction to head towards the NHL, Werenski again reiterated his wishes to play college hockey.
"There are players from the national team that go to the OHL, become stars, go to the pros ... I think college is the route for me. It gives you four years to play for your school, and I think getting an education is huge."
"Everyone has their own path, and Michigan was just the right one for me," Werenski continued. "I bleed maize and blue."