Make no mistake, what Zach Werenski is doing this season at the University of Michigan is special. Werenski is still just 17 years old, and does not turn 18 until this coming July. He should technically be a senior in high school, and with his late birthday, it wouldn't be ridiculous if he was still a junior in high school. He's the youngest player in the NCAA, and if he's at Michigan next season, he'll still be one of the youngest players in the NCAA.
Despite his age, he's made a large impact on Michigan's season. He plays a lot of minutes and in every situation for the Wolverines, and has been their most offensively productive defenseman this season with a 5-14-19 scoring line in 24 games this season. He's projected to potentially be selected in the top ten picks in this summer's NHL Draft, something only one NCAA player(Jacob Trouba) has done in the past six drafts.
It seems impossible to overlook a player of that talent, but Werenski has drawn relatively little attention this season. The reason is pretty simple: Noah Hanifin. The Boston College freshman is doing the same thing as Werenski, graduating from high school a year early to play college hockey, only he has done it better. Hanifin has played his way into becoming the near-consensus third overall pick the draft(overshadowed himself by near-generational talents in Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid). Werenski has looked like a terrifically talented 17-year-old this season. Hanifin looks like he's much older than he is.
But Werenski is a special player in his own right, and has a very bright future. I took a closer look at Werenski this past weekend when Michigan traveled to Minnesota. Here's what I saw, as well as what Werenski's future potential looks like.
Werenski has all the physical tools to be a great defenseman at the next level. He's listed at 6-2 214 lbs and that measurement appears pretty fair. The 214 lbs. may be a little generous, but that may just be because Werenski moves like a player much smaller than 214 lbs. He's tremendously light on his feet for a bigger defenseman, which gives him good mobility in all four directions. He's especially quick moving laterally. He hasn't been overwhelmed by his more physically mature competition. There's still occasions when he will lose a physical battle along the boards, but has a pretty good average in those types of one-on-one battles.
The part of the game that has improved the most this season, and has helped him move from mid-first round into the top ten on many draft boards, has been his play with the puck. On Friday night, he made a lot of clean, simple reads with accurate passes to players on the breakout, or to hit forwards with speed in the neutral zone. He also showed the ability to stickhandle around an opponent to make a play rather than panicking and punting the puck. On Saturday, especially as the game progressed, Michigan tried to spring forwards free with long stretch passes through the neutral zone, which Werenski struggled to get through, albeit against solid defense.
He's been manning the top of the point on Michigan's power play for nearly the entire season. He showed a nice ability to create shooting lanes for himself with a quick fake shot and then sidestepping a defender. He rarely went beyond making the safe, simple pass on the power play, but did a good job moving his feet to create angles for open passing lanes. He prefers to use his heavy wrist shot to his slap shot when shooting from the point. He's been very accurate hitting the top corners of the net this season with his shot. He could likely stand to do a better job of shooting low and creating rebounds on a more consistent basis.
The area of his game where his youth really shows up is on the defensive end. One-on-one gap control and defensive positioning was a big issue throughout Friday night. In the neutral zone, he has a tendency to be too aggressive with his positioning, making it easy for the opposition to get behind him, an issue that goes back to the first time we wrote about Werenski two-and-a-half years ago. That's been something he's been able to overcome in the past because of his tremendous physical abilities, but at the NCAA level, and especially at the pro level, players are skilled enough to punish for those types of mistakes. He got caught with too conservative of a gap on a Minnesota power play early in Friday's game, and the easy zone entry allowed Minnesota to establish possession and score the game's first goal.
After a rough game on Friday night, he was much stronger defensively on Saturday night, though he was also much more conservative and made less of an overall impact on the game. The nuances of defensive positioning and developing the ability to execute them consistently is something that is really hard to teach, and something that is going to take some time for him to learn. It's also almost exactly what you'd expect for a 17-year-old playing against very good players that are many years older.
Where does that leave Werenski for the future? Comparing him to other top defensemen available in the Draft, he's not in the same class as Noah Hanifin, who will almost definitely go third overall. After that, Werenski made a strong case for himself as the second-best defenseman available in the draft in the early part of the year. WHL defenseman Ivan Provorov has come on strong since the World Juniors, where he was better than Werenski. Swedish defenseman Oliver Kylington is a bit of a wild card. He started the year as an early favorite after playing Sweden's top pro league last season, but missed the World Juniors due to injury, and interest seems to have cooled. Werenski won't be in the top five picks, but anything after that, depending on the personal preference of the teams picking is a realistic possibility.
Looking further down the road, Werenski obviously projects as a potential first pairing defenseman in the NHL. He wouldn't be in the discussion as a top ten pick if he wasn't. He won't be NHL-ready for the team that drafts him next season. He'll either return to Michigan, or sign a contract with the team that drafts him and play for London in the OHL. With one more year of experience though, he could potentially compete for an NHL roster spot and play sheltered minutes in the right situation, with the best case scenario of being ready for full-time NHL duty the year after that.