Zach Werenski. (Tom Sorensen/USA Hockey)
A top 2015 draft prospect, the gifted defenseman had to go through one crazy summer to make sure his schooling was in order, but his autumn prize is a roster spot for the Maize and Blue.
Zach Werenski had a nerve-wracking summer, but it will all be worth it when autumn rolls around. The Grosse Pointe, Mich., native is foregoing his second year of service with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program in order to go straight to college, where he will suit up for the University of Michigan Wolverines as a 17-year-old.
In any other year, Werenski would be a rarity, but there are actually five players up for the 2015 draft who will enter the college ranks this season. Along with Werenski, there is Jack Eichel and A.J. Greer (Boston U.), Noah Hanifin (Boston College) and Cameron Hughes (Wisconsin). It's a special year for talent and this wave of youth reflects that.
For Werenski, who was also recruited by the Ontario League's London Knights, getting academically eligible so quickly was a challenge, once he found out Michigan had a spot for him on the 2014-15 roster.
"They told me they want me to be an impact player," he said. "They have a great defense corps and I think I can add to it. I have to earn it, but I'm happy to do that."
The Wolverines have three NHL prospects returning to the blueline this season in Michael Downing (Florida), Brennan Serville (Winnipeg) and Nolan De Jong (Minnesota), but for a team that missed the NCAA tournament last season, reinforcements were obviously needed. Werenski, who has already lived in Ann Arbor thanks to his time with the NTDP, scrambled to get all the NCAA-cleared high school classes out of the way and there were a couple barriers thrown up.
First, a physics class he needed was cancelled at his local high school, so he had to enroll in an online version that was already two weeks in. Then, two English classes he had completed were not recognized by the NCAA, so he had to pick up two more. So Werenski's summer has basically been one of skating and/or working out until noon, then doing homework the rest of the day. On weekends? More homework. But the reward for that commitment is obvious.
"I would have gone back to the NTDP and that would have been fine, I loved it there," Werenski said. "But Michigan is a good fit for me."
Ironically, Werenski won't get much separation from his old Team USA mates: Michigan's second opponent is none other than the NTDP. Asked which player he's most excited to play against for the first time and the defenseman was quick with a response.
"Jordan Greenway," he said. "I love that kid. he lived down the street from me in Ann Arbor, so I was over there 24/7."
Werenski will be useful for more than just an early scouting report on Team USA, however. The Wolverines received very little offense from the back end last year, with graduating senior Mac Bennett leading the way with 14 points in 35 games. Downing, who had 12, leads all returning blueliners. But Werenski is a big-bodied threat who can play at both ends of the ice, which will no doubt help the Michigan attack.
"I'm a two-way defenseman and I hate to get scored on," Werenski said. "But I pick my spots and like to jump into the rush, too."
Scouts particularly like the offensive upside of Werenski's game, not to mention his 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame. He often paired with Hanifin last year and those two will likely be the first two North American blueliners taken in 2015, with Hanifin almost a certainty to go third overall behind Eichel and Connor McDavid. In terms of improvement, Werenski wants to be harder to play against and not rely on his stick so much when he's neutralizing opponents.
Though there's an entire season to play, NHL teams can at least look at Werenski's summer activities and see that he's a player who gets the job done when he wants something – even if it means a lot of homework.
Photo courtesy of Tom Sorensen/USA Hockey