Ask any defenseman who grew in the metro-Detroit area, and odds are, their favorite player is Nicklas Lidstrom.
“He was my favorite player growing up,” said freshman defenseman Nicholas Boka, a Plymouth native. “I have a Fathead in my room of Nick Lidstrom … he’s a great role model.”
And if there’s one player on the Michigan hockey team who emulates Lidstrom’s game the most, it’s sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski.
Lidstrom was one of the most prolific point men of his generation for the Detroit Red Wings, Werenski thrives in that same role for Michigan — notching nine goals and 19 assists on the year.
But it goes further than the stat sheet.
Not only does Werenski lead the Big Ten’s defensemen in scoring, he is also one of Michigan’s smartest defensemen, and it’s these intangibles that make him a lot like Lidstrom was with the Red Wings.
“(Werenski is) one of the smarter defensive players,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “He’s a little bit like Lidstrom was with Detroit. … He’s got a really smart stick. Physically, he gets involved if he has to, but his first choice is to play the puck and to play his position well.
“I think a lot of these Michigan-born defensemen, even Jon Merrill, they used to call him “Nick” because he used to emulate Lidstrom, and you can see a little bit of that in Werenski too. “
And Werenski’s quality was recognized Monday, when he was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, along with earning All-Big Ten First Team honors.
“Zach definitely deserves it,” Boka said. “He’s been great all year for us.”
Furthermore, while many forget, Werenski is still just 18-years-old. He’s even younger than freshman forward Brendan Warren.
But what he lacks in age, Werenski makes up for it in experience, and he has become a role model for others.
“It seems like he’s been here forever, but he hasn’t,” Berenson said. “He’s still a young kid, and he’s easy to get along with, and he knows the game, and he has a passion for the game. Werenski is controlled and subtle and more finesse. As a leader, he’s a role model for other guys.”
But it wasn’t good all year for Werenski. Even he admitted that he could’ve played better throughout the season.
“I think people go through rough patches in hockey,” Werenski said. “It’s something everyone goes through eventually. For me, I just tried to learn the game as best as possible. When you’re not playing well, you just try to keep it simple. More recently, I think I’ve gotten over that hump, and going into the Big Ten Tournament, I hope I continue to play well.”
Some of the blame for his rough patches, though, might be Werenski’s participation in the World Junior Championships in Helsinki, Finland — where he captained the United States team.
Between the middle of December and the beginning of January, Werenski played against the top talent in the world. While it was a good experience, it didn’t offer him a lot of down time.
“(The World Junior Championships) take a lot out of you,” Werenski said. “You’re there for over a month and you have to travel halfway around the world and go through the time change for that month.
“When you get back, you’re still on that adrenaline and it catches up to you.”
But while Werenski thought there were times when he struggled, his teammates had a different answer when asked if Werenski had rough patches this season.
“Not really, no,” Boka said. “I think that’s just how high he expects himself to play.”
Added Berenson: “When you’re a young player, and you’ve been selected in the first round of the NHL Draft, your challenge is to live up to that for the rest of your career, not just for one year, or one series or one weekend.”
After being shut out of the NCAA Tournament for three-straight years, Michigan has finally broken through to earn an at-large bid, and Werenski has been a huge part of that.
But at least some of the credit has to go to the Red Wings’ No. 5, Nicklas Lidstrom, for inspiring a new crop of Michigan defensemen.
“I loved watching Lidstrom play,” Werenski said. “He was my favorite player growing up, him or Datsuyk. It was great for me being a defenseman, growing up watching him play, and I think it’s a big reason why I play like I do now.”