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Young Wolverine Werenski Eager to Make an Early Difference

By Doug Williams - Special to USAHockey.com, 09/25/14, 10:30AM EDT

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Zach Werenski is quickly adapting to life as a University of Michigan freshman.

He’s got his class schedule down pat, feels comfortable around the Ann Arbor, Mich., campus and already has figured out there are a million distractions just waiting to take his mind off his missions.

“You walk into a lecture with 500 people and you’re kind of overwhelmed because people are doing whatever on their laptops, not paying attention, so you really have to focus,” he said. “You have to tell yourself you’re going to focus, because there are a lot of ways you can get off track.”

On the ice, Werenski is also locked in. He has to be because hockey at Michigan is on a new, higher plane.

“It’s just bigger, faster, stronger,” he said.

Werenski should be up for the challenge. Though he’s just 17, he’s a highly regarded defenseman who’s been touted by some as a possible first-round talent in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Recently, he was selected as one of 42 elite draft-eligible prospects across the nation to play in the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game set for tonight in Buffalo, N.Y. He sees the game as an opportunity to see where he stacks up among the nation’s best players.

But once the final buzzer sounds, Werenski’s primary goal goes back to fitting in with his team and making a positive contribution.

The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder from Grosse Pointe, Mich., is part of a strong group of freshman recruits for coach Red Berenson, and Werenski is hoping his talents as an offensive-minded defenseman — who had seven goals and 20 assists in 47 games last season for the U.S. National Team Development Program — can make an impact in his first season.

He’s a confident skater who likes to have the puck on his stick, and he loves to jump up into the offensive end to join in the attack when it’s prudent.

Yet he adds that defense comes first and, “I don’t like to get scored on.”

Now that he’s playing with older and more mature players, he’s going to have to take his game bigger, too.

“Becoming more physical and hard to play against is something I definitely want to work on,” Werenski said.

Werenski’s hockey experience at Michigan started with captains’ practices, without the coaching staff. Only recently have coaches been able to get on the ice. But Werenski already has impressed his older teammates, and Berenson singled out Werenski by name when talking to the media about his stellar freshman group.

“Werenski has stepped up as a 17-year-old,” junior captain Andrew Copp told the Detroit Free Press recently. “He’s got a lot of poise with the puck and is strong on his skates and stick.”

Werenski worked hard to finish high school early in order to begin at Michigan this fall.

After playing with the NTDP the past year — which also is in Ann Arbor — Werenski could have stayed another year with the program, played for the London franchise of the Ontario Hockey League (which held his rights) or gone to Michigan.

He decided Michigan would be the best place for him, so he worked hard academically to graduate early. He’s now the youngest player ever in Berenson’s Wolverines program.

Werenski said the entire team has been welcoming, and the atmosphere is exactly what he was looking for. It’s a talented group.

“Talking with coaches, I plan on being kind of an impact player on this team,” he said. “I know I’m going to have to earn it. I know I’m capable of doing that. But there’s great defensemen on this team and I’m not overlooking any of them. I think we work well, all of us together, so it’ll be fun, interesting. It just pushes each and every one of us harder.”

As eager as he is to play in the All-American Prospects Game, he says he can’t think about next year’s draft, his status with NHL scouts or what the future might hold.

“People can rate you any way they want or rate your potential, first round or whatever, but nothing is set in stone,” he said. “I just go out there and play my game and whatever happens, happens.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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