Zach Werenski: The 17-year-old rock of the defense

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By Jason Rubinstein, Daily Sports Writer
Published December 9, 2014

Some members of the Michigan hockey team will admit it: They were skeptical when they first heard a 17-year-old was joining their team.

“I thought it was a little sketchy at first,” said senior defenseman Brennan Serville.

Nearly halfway through the season, any doubts Serville and his teammates once had in freshman Zach Werenksi have been squashed.

Now, it’s hard to believe Werenski is just 17. He not only leads the Wolverines with a plus-11 rating, but has also tallied 12 points — three goals and nine assists. More importantly, he has helped alleviate the question marks that came with the defensive corps at the start of the season.

“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,” said associate head coach Billy Powers. “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.”

The freshman can often be mistaken for a veteran and has earned as much ice time as any defenseman. However, Werenski maintains that there are still certain areas that he’s getting acclimated to.

“Guys just being stronger and faster,” he said. “Sometimes it doesn’t look like someone is going that fast, but they’re flying. Sometimes you go in the corner (for a puck battle) and then the guy there is a man. It’s just getting used to that.”

With time, he should find his way and be able to challenge that “man” skating his way. But Werenski still finds ways to be effective defensively without hitting.

“I guess I’m more reliant on my stick,” Werenski said. “There are times where I need to hit and I’m working on that. I grew up playing that way and using my stick is one of my strengths.”

Added Powers: “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.”

Werenski’s stick skills and body positioning are not only keeping pucks away from the net, but also keeping him away from the penalty box.

Werenski has committed only one penalty through 14 games — a hooking penalty against Boston University back on Oct. 25 — the lowest total of any Michigan blue liner.

The Grosse Point, Michigan native reiterated that he’s never been prone to penalties and, put bluntly, values being on the ice more than taking a seat in the sin bin — music to the ears of the Michigan coaching staff.

“It’s obviously huge,” Powers said of Werenski’s ability to play big minutes. “If you really look back, part of what we were trying to do with our defense was trying to recover from Jacob Trouba and Connor Carrick. Obviously, Connor never got here, he didn’t come, and, of course, Jacob was one-and-done. You plan your classes based on maybe Trouba being a sophomore and Carrick playing until he’s a junior, but then they’re out and you are playing catch up.

“Zach has given us an opportunity to catch up really fast. So there’s no question his game and the level he has been able to play at this early has been a huge benefit to our d-core and well needed.”

But the team might soon be without Werenski for the Great Lakes Invitational. Werenski’s performance has given him the opportunity to try out for Team USA for the upcoming World Junior Championships.

USA Hockey narrowed down the Team USA roster to 30 players — including Werenski, sophomore forward Tyler Motte, sophomore center JT Compher, sophomore defenseman Michael Downing and freshman center Dylan Larkin — and Powers fully expects Werenski to make the team comprised of players mostly two years older.

“I’m going into it open-minded,” Werenski said. “Hopefully I can make it, but if I don’t I can go help Michigan try and win the GLI. So it’s kind of a win-win for me. But my goal is to go try and make that team.”

And if he does make Team USA, Michigan will be at a large disadvantage playing without its talented 17-year-old.