With the talent the Michigan hockey team brings in each year, early NHL defections are inevitable. And this year is no different.
Tuesday morning, sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski agreed to a three-year entry level contract with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and signed an amateur tryout contract with the American Hockey League’s Lake Erie Monsters — the Blue Jacket’s minor league affiliate — for the remainder of the season. The Daily first reported Werenski had been in contract talks with the Blue Jackets organization on Monday night.
Werenski, the Big Ten Defenseman of the Year, was drafted eighth overall in the 2015 NHL Draft. In a breakout sophomore season, he tallied 11 goals and 24 assists during the season, and his 35 points ranked fourth on the team. He also anchored the Wolverines’ nation-leading power-play unit. Werenski came back to Michigan for his sophomore season after a strong freshman year, which he said was a difficult decision.
“I wanted to come back here to learn as a player, just grow my game in all three zones,” Werenski told the Daily earlier this year. “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.”
Werenski played his best at the end of the season, drawing praise from Wolverines head coach Red Berenson.
“I think he played the best hockey of his two-year career at Michigan in these last couple months and showed Columbus that he was a real serious prospect. If they could sign him, they were going to sign him, and they did,” Berenson said. “He started to play like he could play. He loved the puck more, he got his shots through, he was more involved in the whole game physically, defensively. He broke up big plays. He really played like he was trying to take it to a new level.
“He needed to be reminded sometimes that he’s got the green light to go.”
Added Weresnki: “I kind of realized it after (this season’s) World Juniors. I don’t know why it didn’t register in college hockey for me earlier on.
“The coaches have so much faith in me. I just had to go out there and believe it.”
The 18-year-old reported to Lake Erie on Tuesday, and is set to face off against senior Michigan forward Justin Selman — who signed with the Chicago Wolves — on Friday. Werenski said he has not had any discussion about the timing of his move to the Blue Jacket’s roster, but that it would depend on his play.
“There’s a lot of unknowns and things I’ve never been exposed to in the pro lifestyle,” Werenski said. “But I think going to Michigan, and going to college anywhere, really prepares you for the challenges ahead.
“Michigan does a really good job of making you a better person.”
Werenski, a Grosse Pointe, Mich. native, appeared more and more likely to leave for the NHL as the season progressed. The defenseman starred as a captain of the United States’ bronze medal team at the 2015 World Junior Championships, and collected numerous end-of-year awards from the NCAA. His departure, along with that of junior defenseman Michael Downing, leaves a daunting hole in Michigan’s defense for next season.
This is a developing story. Check back at www.michigandaily.com for updates.
Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the type of contract Werenski signed. His contract is an amateur tryout contract with the Monsters, not an NHL contract with the Blue Jackets.