Who is Zachary Werenski?
Zachary Werenski, also known as Zach, is a 17 year old defenseman that plays for the University of Michigan and has represented the United States internationally. Listed at 6'2, 214 lbs. by the Michigan website, the large defender from Grosse Pointe, Michigan has already played a full season of college hockey and doesn't turn 18 until July 19, 2015 - an impressive feat. Werenski is a product of the US National Team Developmental Program and opted to go the college route instead of playing for the London Knights of the OHL. So far in his short career he has earned a Gold Medal at the U17 World Championships in 2013-14 with the United States team and this past season he picked up Big Ten All-Rookie Team and First All-Star Team honors as a freshman for Michigan. He also featured for this past season's USA U20 squad at the World Junior Championships. As you will see below in his stats from Elite Prospects, Werenski is an offensive threat from the blue line.
9 goals and 16 assists in 35 games as a defenseman and the youngest player in college hockey is impressive. According to Elite Prospects he ranked 14th in scoring amongst defensemen and he out-scored top defense prospect, Noah Hanifin in 2 less games played. He was the 5th youngest player at the WJC and the youngest defenseman which says a lot about how highly USA Hockey thinks of him.
Going back to his college hockey stats, he split his production fairly evenly between even strength (6-7-13) and the power play (3-9-12). His 2.29 SH/GP, 0.71 Pts/GP, 8.87 Goals Created, and 0.25 GC/GP was tops among Michigan's defensemen. He finished with a NHL Equivalency of 24 which really shows how much offense he was able to contribute as a 17 year old defenseman. To once again compare him to Hanifin, Werenski comes out on top but it's notable that the Michigan defender did get a lot of PP time and was relied on more for offense than Hanifin was with Boston College.
What Others Say About Zachary Werenski
Werenski was ranked as the 9th best North American skater by Central Scouting. He is currently ranked 11th by ISS, 6th by Craig Button of TSN, 6th by Future Considerations, and the most recent public rankings from Hockey Prospect had him at 9th back in mid-February.
Future Considerations had this to say about Werenski back before the season started:
Smart and reliable two-way defenseman…shows skill at both ends of the ice...is a good skater with a smooth stride and fluid movements...handles the puck well with decent hand-skill, good strength and some elusiveness with it as he moves through the neutral zone…makes a great first pass and outlet…has good poise and vision with the puck on his stick…has a decent wrist shot, which he'll take from the point…isn't overly physical on defense and he needs to play tougher and meaner than he does…has good reach and he uses his stick well to take away lanes and force players wide and off the puck…poised on defense and recovers well.
I always like reading that a defenseman is a good skater and can make the right first pass out of the zone. Being able to contribute offensively with a shot from the point is always a nice bonus. I'm not concerned to read that he isn't overly physical of defense - there is plenty of time for him to grow and learn to use his strength in a positive way.
McKeen's Hockey has this report on Werenski from October of 2014:
Starting with the good:
A slick, mobile defender who plays a pressing offensive style. Strong puck handler and a resourceful, heads up puck mover. Eats up the ice with an effortless and powerful stride. Senses how to create time and space to feed the breakout with smart outlet plays. Fuels quick transitions when sticking to a simple play on attack.
Will need to learn to be more sensibly when on the attack, showing an ability to operate into the teams system. Loses structure defending, gravitates towards the puck and leaves the crease unprotected. Gaps are an area of development, struggling with his appreciation for time and space, will fail to step up and take away prime routes to the net.
Once again, a strong skater that can create offense in transition is a trait that appeals to me when I look at defensemen. His flaws are things that can be improved upon with coaching. He may lose focus or not be completely comfortable in some areas like gap control but that isn't a surprise considering he is a 17 year old that is playing against older competition.
Ben Kerr of Last Word on Sports has plenty of praise for Werenski, especially his mobility:
He has outstanding speed, which gives him the ability to join the rush, or pinch at the blueline and still be able to cover up defensively at the NCAA level. He has outstanding edge work and agility, giving him the ability to walk the line and open up passing and shooting lanes on the powerplay. His pivots are also very good, allowing to transition quickly from offence to defence or vice-versa. As a result of his strong skating, Werenski is able to cover a lot of ice. He has the power and balance to fight through checks, and win board battles.
Another report that praises his skating and mobility. He definitely seems like the type of player that can play in all three zones and eventually contribute in all situations.
On the NHL website, Central Scouting’s Greg Rajanen has this to say about Werenski:
"He's such a cool, calm and collected player. He's smart, always in the right spot, moves the puck and makes all the right plays."
A Little Video
There are two videos of Werenski on YouTube that provide a glimpse into what type of player he is. The first video comes from bigwhite06 and has his 2015 WJC highlights, including a goal, some passes, a block, and some PP ice time. He is #23.
The next video comes from HockeyPwns and features shift by shift commentary from his WJC game in January against Russia. It highlights his strong skating and smart passing but also sheds light on his high risk positioning in the offensive zone. The commentator also mentions how decisive Werenski is, whether he is about to receive the puck or has it on his stick.
An Opinion of Sorts
It's no secret that the Devils desperately need forwards - skilled forwards - and that they already have a strong crop of young defensemen already at the NHL level and in the prospect pool. I'm hoping that the Devils pick a skilled forward since there will be some appealing options available to them at #6. With that disclaimer out of the way, I have to say I wouldn't be upset if the Devils took Werenski. You can do a lot worse than a two-way, mobile defender that already has a year of college hockey and the world juniors under his belt at the age of 17.
He already has pro size and figures to grow more. He has the offensive skill-set that is desirable for defensemen in today's NHL with his ability to skate out of trouble, make the right outlet pass, and get his wrist shot past goaltenders. His flaws such as improving his positioning, learning systems, and reading forwards as they come into the defensive zone are all things that can be fixed with more coaching and game experience.
While his addition would create more of a crowd among the Devils defense prospects, it would allow new GM Ray Shero a chance to trade someone like a Jon Merrill or Eric Gelinas in some sort of deal for a young, skilled forward. This is also a solid draft year and with the Devils picking at #36 and #41, perhaps they would feel comfortable taking the defender in the 1st round and going after forwards in the 2nd round. Once again, I think the Devils should opt for a forward likeMitch Marner (if he falls), Mathew Barzal, or Mikko Rantanen (just to name a few) over Werenski. But the Devils taking Werenski doesn't mean they won't have an opportunity to find a skilled forward elsewhere, whether through a trade or the draft.
Werenski doesn't address a need for the Devils but they may feel like he is too good to pass up. Now that you've had the chance to get a look at Werenski, what do you think? Would it be nuts for the Devils to draft him given the current state of the NHL roster and prospect pool? Would you be ok with the Devils taking him if they deemed him the best player available? What do you think about his skill-set and his flaws? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!