Defenseman and top 2015 draft prospect Zach Werenski doesn't even turn 18 until late next month but, after accelerating his high school education, he already has a freshman season under his belt at the University of Michigan that stands alone in recent NCAA history. No under-18 player since Jonathan Toews has scored at a better rate in college hockey than Werenski's 25 points in 35 games this season manning Michigan's blueline and no under-18 defenseman has done so in the past 25 years. What Werenski accomplished this year at his age is remarkable and there's every reason to think he has the potential to ultimately emerge as the best blueliner from this draft class.
What do the scouts say?
Like Provorov, Werenski is a defenseman whose game appears to be perfect for the current NHL landscape. The 6'2", 207-pound blueliner is widely described as an extremely smooth skater who can catalyze a breakout with precision passing or by carrying the puck past forecheckers. Future Considerations has Werenski ranked 7th on their big board and provides this as a scouting report:
Smart and reliable two-way defenseman…shows skill at both ends of the ice...is a good skater with a smooth stride and fluid movements...handles the puck well with decent hand-skill, good strength and some elusiveness with it as he moves through the neutral zone…makes a great first pass and outlet…has good poise and vision with the puck on his stick…has a decent wrist shot, which he'll take from the point…isn't overly physical on defense and he needs to play tougher and meaner than he does…has good reach and he uses his stick well to take away lanes and force players wide and off the puck…poised on defense and recovers well.
Ben Kerr of Last Word On Sports ranked Werenski 6th, highlighting his offensive game but also bringing attention to the defensive warts any team drafting him would have to put development time into fixing:
Zach Werenski possesses high-end offensive ability with good passing skills, and strong ability to handle the puck and quarterback things from the blueline on the powerplay. Werenski is calm and poised with the puck. He has excellent stickhandling ability, which he can use to start the transition game, or to control the puck at the point on the powerplay. He has a very good slapshot, and excellent vision and passing skills. Offensively his hockey IQ is very high, and Werenski makes intelligent plays with the puck on his stick. He seems to be a step ahead of the play at times, and chooses the play that leads to the best scoring opportunity. All in, Weresnski is one of the top offensive defencemen prospects in this class.
Zach Werenski is not afraid to be physical in his own end of the rink. He can battle in the corners and works to clear the front of the net. He’s also been known to throw a hit if a forward comes down his side of the rink with his head down, though does not go out of his way and get himself caught out of position to do so. He is a strong defender, one-on-one, and off the rush. However, his overall defensive game does need some work. He can sometimes follow the puck too much, and get himself out of position as a result. He also needs some work on reading the play defensively. These things should come with maturity and coaching over the next several years though.
Central Scouting has Werenski ranked 9th among North American prospects while International Scouting Services has him at 11th overall, which is also where he falls in Bob McKenzie's final rankings.
What do the stats say?
It's downright impossible to find historical comparables for Werenski because, again, what he did this year as the youngest player in college hockey is nearly unparalleled. It goes without saying Werenski's raw scoring totals and points-per-game rate were the best among draft-eligible NCAA prospects, even ahead of fellow 17-year-old college defenseman (although he's six months older than Werenski and turned 18 in January) and consensus top five pick Noah Hanifin.
The Boston College blueliner's far more polished defensive game has him ahead of Werenski on most lists but it's likely Werenski's offensive upside is superior. It should be noted, though, that Michigan plays in a fairly weak Big Ten conference that features Penn State's fledgling program and a University of Wisconsin team that had a brutal year while Hockey East contains Hanifin's BC squad alongside powerhouses like Boston University and Providence.
Should the Sharks be interested?
Absolutely. As with Provorov, Werenski would instantly become the best defense prospect in Sharks history if drafted and there's a better chance of Werenski still being available at 9 than Provorov. Unless the Hurricanes really, really like him, Werenski won't go in the top five while the Devils almost certainly have their sights set on a forward at 6. The Blue Jackets at 8 could use a defenseman but they've come out and said they plan to take the best player available regardless of position and have talked up Finnish forward Mikko Rantanen. Especially with Mike Reilly's recent defection leaving a bad taste in their mouths, I'd be surprised if they drafted a NCAA defenseman. There's a great chance Werenski is still on the board when the Sharks make their way up to the podium and, unless Provorov is somehow also available, he'd be a no-brainer pick. Even if Provorov is still available, there's certainly a compelling case to be made Werenski might be the better bet.
What does he look like in action?
Here's a comprehensive highlight package of Werenski's standout plays at World Juniors: