Jason Rubinstein: Werenski a bright spot in a downward NHL trend

Monday, October 12, 2015 - 3:10pm

It was 3:00 in the afternoon on March 26. Red Berenson walked into the media room at Yost Ice Arena, took a seat in his usual chair and drank two sips of black coffee before saying a word. Disappointment flowed through his body.

His team’s captain, Andrew Copp, had just decided to forgo his senior season, opting to sign with the Winnipeg Jets on a deal that Copp would later say was too good to pass up. But to the Michigan coach, no offer could surpass becoming a two-time captain and playing your senior season at Michigan.

“I just wish he would stay and do it right — graduate with your teammates and classmates and take this team to another level,” Berenson said at the time. “I just told Andrew that I hope he makes it and plays in the NHL next year because I will feel sick if he is playing in the minors and giving up his senior year at Michigan to play in the American Hockey League.”

Copp has since defied the odds and landed a spot on the Jets’ roster. However, Berenson has seen too many players leave early and not make it to the highest level. Phillip Di Guiseppe hasn’t played an NHL game. Neither has Alex Guptill. Even Chris Brown, a former first-round pick who played just two seasons at Michigan, hasn’t blossomed like he thought he could after bolting Michigan too early. And that’s just a small sample.

Sure, Copp’s decision was his to make, and it already looks like he made the correct choice. However, the odds weren’t initially high.

When any 21-year-old is presented with an offer for just under one million dollars — knowing he could also get severely hurt in his senior season — it’s too hard and too much cash to pass up. But who is to say, injury aside, that Copp or Guptill or Brown wouldn’t have received a similar offer the year after?

When the money is there, you have to go,” said St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock, who was in Ann Arbor for a team practice. “It’s the tough nature of the business. You’d like that to change, though.”

That’s a tough pill to swallow for college hockey fans.

It’s a shame that the NHL franchises are prying prospects away from college just to ensure control, even if it’s detrimental to their development. And it’s a shame that players buy into these often-false promises and realities.    

***

Sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski watched Copp leave. He watched his former roommate Dylan Larkin sign his deal. And he watched Noah Hanifin, the fifth pick of the draft and one of his best friends, turn pro.

But Werenski wasn’t so keen on that route. Yet. He understood his time to play in the show would come.

“When you take a step back and talk with your family,” Werenski said, “you realize everyone has a different path.”

On March 22, when Michigan lost in the Big Ten title game to Minnesota, Werenski wasn’t thinking about his future. He was disappointed he let down his senior class and only thought of avenging the loss, saying the Wolverines had “unfinished business.”

But that quickly changed in June when he attended the NHL combine.

“I talked to a lot of teams at the combine,” Werenski said. “There were some teams that said if we draft you and we tell you to leave, you have to leave. But other teams like Columbus said I could do whatever I wanted.

“It’s tough when an NHL team comes to you and says you can shine and try and make our team, because that is ultimately your dream, right?”

He’s right. It’s the dream of all these players. But the idea that an NHL team would demand a player skip the four best years of his life, sometimes against his will, to bus around the United States, playing in front of smaller crowds than Yost Ice Arena is sickening. Shocking, really.

And it only got worse as Werenski clarified the process.

“It’s not like they say, ‘If we take you, you’re coming,’ ” he said. “There was one team, I won’t name the team, that told me, ‘If we take you, and say that you can play in the NHL, would you come?’ And you just say yes or no. And obviously it’s a yes because it’s the NHL.

“And then they go, ‘If we take you and we say you’re going to the AHL will you go?’ They go based on your word. So if you tell them yes, then the guy looks at you says, ‘Well you just said yes, so if we take you and you go against your word, then you are dead to us.’ ”

Dead to us? Really? How many 18-year olds are the saviors of a franchise, anyway? Sure, there were Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Perhaps Connor McDavid, touted as the next Wayne Gretzky before even playing one pro game, will join that list. But those are once-in-a-decade players. What about the hundreds of others who end up busing between Milwaukee, Rockford, Albany, Syracuse, Orlando, Fort Wayne and more? You don’t hear about those. And probably never will.

The fact that Werenski felt “relieved” when Columbus drafted him because teams drafting around them would force him to bolt the place he loved is a sobering reality. Even worse, he’s not the only player who feels that way.

***

Steve Shields won 111 games as Michigan’s goalie from 1990-94. He led the Wolverines to two Frozen Four appearances and went on to play 12 seasons in the NHL.

He understands the process. He knows players who have taken every route to the pros. So it annoys Shields when players leave college with the allure of accomplishing their dream only to be placed in the AHL — or even a lower league — and miss out on their junior and senior seasons.

“The experience when you’re here, you can never duplicate,” Shields said of Michigan. “Of all the guys I have ever spoken to, I have never met one guy who left and said he was glad he was playing in the American Hockey League or lower.

“If guys are leaving because teams are promising them time in the minors with a chance to come up to the NHL, that’s not the reason I went to school. That’s not why most guys go to school. That’s not why their parents want them to go to school.”

Werenski realized this — a rarity today, which is odd considering many players have had NHL success after four years of college. Berenson cites Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson and former Hobey Baker-winner Brendan Morrison as players who benefited from staying in college until they were 100-percent ready to thrive in the league. Both went on to have successful NHL careers with little time spent in the AHL.

Shields and Berenson do admit, though, that there are times when players are ready. Jacob Trouba, for example, left after his freshman season in 2013 and ended up making an immediate impact in Winnipeg.  Larkin and Copp are a couple others. But they are not the majority.

“When you are ready or over ready, you get to jump in and make a splash,” Shields said. “But when you’re not ready and you jump in and don’t make a splash, then the team is already looking at the next guy coming up.”

So why not wait? Will a team really pass on your potential if you simply want to stay in college an extra year? As Berenson noted, until a player signs his contract, they “are in the driver’s seat.”

Werenski figured that out. Now, he’ll have an opportunity to lead Michigan back to the Frozen Four.

Rubinstein can be reached at jasonbr@umich.edu and on Twitter at @jrubinstein4.