It’s not easy being Zach Werenski.
Sure, the star Michigan defender has everything going for him. He’s got a lethal combination of size and speed, hands of gold and a penchant for sniffing out the back of the net.
But no player on the roster shoulders more responsibility night in and night out.
Werenski is the highest-profile player on a defensive unit that has taken the brunt of criticism for the Wolverines’ shortcomings in the last two years. As such, the 18-year-old sophomore is the cross bearer of a defensive group ripe with inexperience — the messiah who could lead the way to a Frozen Four.
Maybe it’s too much to ask, but maybe it’s not.
After all, the National Talent Development Program product did captain the USA team at the IIHF World Junior Championships in Finland — the most prestigious tournament of its kind. Either way, this is the position Werenski finds himself in as Michigan rises in the rankings, fifth in the USHCO poll, despite a 3.13 goals against average.
Those expectations are why quiet weekends like the most recent series against Penn State can be alarming. The Wolverines scored 13 goals, recording 31 points, but only one went to Werenski.
That’s not to say he played poorly. Werenski recorded five shots and finished +4 plus/minus for the weekend, despite a nagging foot injury alluded to by Michigan assistant coach Billy Powers.
“I want to play well for my team every night, but more importantly I want to win,” Werenski said. “There’s going to be nights where not everyone plays their best.
"I can’t say I’m frustrated if we’re winning games.”
The spotlight has followed Werenski ever since he took the ice for Michigan as a 17-year-old freshman, completing high school in three years. On top of the obvious talent, he has earned the reputation of a high-IQ player among the coaching staff.
“He seeks me out to watch video, I don’t have to say, ‘Maybe we should watch your shift,’ ” Powers said. “It’s Zach coming to me. He’s hungry to learn, hungry to grow and very, very competitive.”
The eager attitude paid off, as Werenski recorded 13 goals and 16 assists in his freshman campaign. The success has largely continued this year, as the sophomore has 17 points in 21 games while leading a revitalization on the defensive end.
“I’ve just been so impressed, starting from last year, that a young kid could handle everything that went on in his world,” Powers said. “Last year and then this year being the captain of the World Junior team.”
But Werenski has been working tirelessly on his game his whole life, and he isn’t stopping now.
“I wanted to come back here to learn as a player, just grow my game in all three zones,” Werenski said. “The main thing is learning and becoming a better player. I think I did a good job of that in the first half (of the season). I think that really showed at World Juniors— how good of a job Michigan has done developing their players.”
Added junior defenseman Michael Downing: “I think he’s just gotten a lot smarter defensively. Even last year he wasn’t bad, but he’s defense-first now, that’s what is on his mind. The way he approaches the game is a lot different now, too. I think last year he had a lot of stress on him with the draft and everything.”
The Grosse Pointe, Mich., native is now focused on improving his physical play in the corners, part of a team-wide effort to reduce the goals-against before the postseason.
“I came in with that as one of my goals — to play harder, play more physical,” Werenski said. “I think I shied away from that a little bit after World Juniors. I don’t really know the reason for that.”
Stretches of sheer brilliance like what Werenski accomplished at the World Juniors, in which he recorded nine points in seven games, add to his enigma as a player. At times, he dominates play in Michigan’s defensive end, but in other games he assumes a diminished roll.
Turnovers at the blue line and giveaways on the offensive rush have been largely eliminated as the defense grew together this season, but it’s still anyone’s guess as to whether Werenski can carry this unit against a powerhouse team like Quinnipiac or Boston College.
That question won’t get answered until March at the earliest, so Werenski will keep learning and growing his game. Through all the hoopla, the draft, the rumors, the allure of the NHL, he’s surprised everyone by keeping his even keel.
And who knows, maybe that is exactly the type of leader Michigan needs for a deep run this postseason.