University of Michigan defenseman Zachary Werenski wasn't just the youngest player in the NCAA during the 2014-15 season. He also was considered one of the best at his position.
"I can't tell you how close he is to playing in the NHL, but I can tell you that for his age he's definitely one of the top players around," Michigan coach Red Berenson said.
Werenski, 17, is one of three college freshmen projected to be picked in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft, which will be held June 26 at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla. Also expected to go early in the draft are Boston University center Jack Eichel and Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin.
Werenski (6-foot-2, 206 pounds), a left-handed shot, is No. 9 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of the top North American skaters eligible for the 2015 draft. Eichel, winner of the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's top player, is No. 2, and Hanifin is No. 3.
2015 NHL DRAFT
NHL.com's mock drafts predicted Werenski would be the No. 9 pick in one, the No. 10 pick in the other.
"He's such a cool, calm and collected player," NHL Central Scouting's Greg Rajanen said of Werenski. "He's the type of player you have to watch a little closely to realize how good he is. He's smart, always in the right spot, moves the puck and makes all the plays. But not in a 'wow' sort of way like Hanifin does. At the next level Werenski will be a really a good player who will produce points and be solid defensively."
Werenski rarely was reminded about being college hockey's youngest player, and was happy about that.
"I haven't heard about it since the beginning of the year," he said. "I don't need to worry about that; I just went out there and played."
In 35 games he had nine goals and 16 assists, and led all Michigan defenders with 25 points. He also had 12 power-play points, a plus-9 rating and was tied for the Michigan lead with 59 blocked shots. He was named to the All-Big Ten Hockey First Team and the All-Big Ten Freshman Team.
"At the beginning of the year there was an adjustment period but luckily mine was pretty short," Werenski said. "Playing against bigger, stronger and faster players from the start has helped. I'm just doing things out of habit right now."
Berenson said he still finds it hard to believe that Werenski is 17; he won't turn 18 until July 19.
"Right from our first game against Ferris State [Werenski had one assist and four shots on goal], Zach might have been our best defenseman in that game," Berenson said. "He really showed us that day that he was more ready to play at this level than even we knew. I was impressed and surprised."
Werenski excels when carrying the puck.
"Some players don't know what to do with the puck when they're skating but he knows what to do," Berenson said. "He'll make the smart play. He's got the vision and good wrist shot and he quarterbacks our top power-play unit."
Werenski and Hanifin, roommates while playing for the United States National Team Development Program under-17 team in 2013-14, were reunited with the United States at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship. Werenski had one goal, one assist and a plus-5 rating in five games.
He said he returned to Michigan a more confident player because of his WJC experience.
"I think playing against those kids and playing against the best and seeing where you stand kind of gives you confidence," Werenski said. "I learned that you really have to play hard every shift. These players are the best in the world so they would make you look stupid if you take a shift off."
Don Granato got to coach Werenski and Hanifin at the USNTDP last season.
"Werenski is every bit as close [as Hanifin]," Granato said. "Everything Zach does is effortless, smooth as silk, and it's at high speed. He has power and grace all in one. I remember Zach dominating a few of our practices. Guys on the team would be like, 'This is unfair; switch your hands,' and he would gracefully skate right through everybody."
Werenski said that sophomore defense partner Kevin Lohan played a big part in making the transition to the college game that much easier.
"He'll tell me straight up how things are and what I need to work on," Werenski said. "It helps when defense partners are that close. My roommate in Michigan is [Detroit Red Wings prospect] Dylan Larkin, so I'll ask him questions about the NHL Combine and the draft all the time."
The decision to attend Michigan was a long process for Werenski. He was selected in the second round (No. 24) by the London Knights in the 2013 Ontario Hockey League draft and examined all possibilities before making his choice.
"I fell in love with [Michigan] right away but wasn't committed until I looked at all the options; I didn't want to commit to something and change my mind and de-commit," Werenski said. "I wanted to stay true to my word. And once I knew Michigan was right for me I made that commitment and wasn't looking back."
Werenski said a conversation he had with Michigan assistant coach Brian Wiseman sparked the idea of accelerating his studies in order to enter college in the fall of 2014. He did that, spending all summer taking online courses before committing to Michigan on July 17, 2014.
"I saw Coach Wiseman at a rink on a trip with USA Hockey and he made mention of possibly accelerating my schooling since they would like me to play this season," Werenski said. "At first my dad and me didn't think it would work since I was a whole year behind. But we looked more into it and I talked with my parents, my brother, and we thought it was the best decision for me to go play at Michigan. I talked to counselors at high school and they helped out and put together a schedule in the summer that would help me graduate early and that's how it worked."
The Wolverines had three NHL prospects among their defense corps this season in Michael Downing (Florida Panthers), Brennan Serville (Winnipeg Jets) and Nolan De Jong (Minnesota Wild), but there certainly was room for Werenski among the top six.
"He's had to learn the college game and the quickness, the defensive-zone stuff, our systems and structure, but he was able to continue to play his game and play the right way," Berenson said. "I'd put him right up there with former Michigan defensemen Jacob Trouba, Mike Komisarek, Jack Johnson and Jeff Jillson. They were all first-round picks in the NHL and they all had big-time hockey written all over them just like Zach does."
Werenski said he isn't sure what the future holds after the draft.
"I've really enjoyed my time at Michigan but I think anything can happen," he said. "When the time comes I'll make the decision that's right for me and my family. But I'm happy where I'm at right now."