It wasn’t a friendly offseason for the Michigan hockey team. The Wolverines first lost then-captain Andrew Copp to the Winnipeg Jets organization, and then lost Dylan Larkin, arguably their best offensive player, to the Detroit Red Wings.
On Thursday, though, the string of bad news broke when defenseman Zach Werenski confirmed to NHL.com that he would return to Michigan for his sophomore season.
There was speculation that Werenski would forgo his Michigan eligibility to join the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. The Knights drafted Werenski in the second round of the 2013 OHL draft. The pressure heightened after the Columbus Blue Jackets selected Weresnki eighth overall in the 2015 NHL Draft.
“Obviously Zach put himself in a position to have options,” said assistant coach Brian Wiseman. “But we maintained great, constant communication and we are happy to have him back.”
Werenski, 18, was Michigan’s most consistent blueliner last season, showing poise and stick skills well beyond his years. He tallied nine goals and 16 assists en route to being named to both the Big Ten-All Freshmen Team and the All-Big Ten First Team.
Werenski was not immediately available for comment as he is currently playing for the United States at the National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Pacid, New York where he scored the American’s game-winning goal to defeat Finland, 5-4, in an exhibition game on Wednesday.
Throughout the season, the Michigan coaching staff gushed about the then-17-year old’s ability.
“We’ve had the experience with a couple (of 17-year-olds) with (Mike) Cammalleri and Jason Botterill; they were forwards and both those kids had good freshman years,” associate head coach Billy Powers said in Decemeber. “But for a defenseman to do it is a statement. It’s a tougher road for a defenseman; you have to be stronger, tougher, handle the down-low play and still be able to do what you do well, which is what Zach does with the puck.
“As much as he’s gifted offensively, he’s got a great stick defensively. He intercepts or takes away plays a lot with his stick and body position and that’s a by-product of his high hockey IQ.”
So while the losses of Copp and Larkin were big blows to the Wolverines’ 2015-16 plans, Werenski’s return certainly softens the punch.
This is a developing story. Check back at michigandaily.com for updates.