Our own Jeff Little is famous for saying "Hope is not a strategy."
With Zach Werenski, the fans in Columbus need to keep that saying in mind as we move towards the 2016-2017 season.
Drafted 8th overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, it was clear the organization saw him as key part of the team’s future, with visions of Werenski and Ryan Murray creating a young, flexible backbone for the team’s defense, capable of playing against the toughest opposition and driving play up the ice.
In his draft year, Werenski had displayed excellent two way play as a freshman in the University of Michigan’s hockey program, including being named to the Big Ten’s All Freshman team and the All Big Ten squad. Returning to Michigan the following season with high expectations, Werenski delivered a point per game performance for the Wolverines, including a record setting performance in the Big Ten Tournament championship game. Internationally, Werenski was also named the captain for Team USA at the World Juniors, and brought home a bronze medal and the IIHF top defenseman award.
After a hard fought loss to North Dakota in the NCAA tournament, Werenski made the decision to leave Michigan and begin his pro career, signing both his ELC with Columbus and an amateur tryout agreement with the Lake Erie Monsters that would allow him to participate in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
The AHL postseason became a coming out party for the young defenseman, racking up 5 goals and 9 assists en route to the championship, and bringing a new wave of excitement to fans in Columbus who had been desperately starved for good news.
With that said, one person, no matter how gifted, cannot be expected to fix the team’s defensive woes, or to become the catalyst for an often sputtering offence overnight. It’s absolutely fair to be excited about his NHL debut - he brings a lot of talent that is desperately needed - but he’s still only 19.
Outlook for 2016-2017
With a spot on the blue line almost guaranteed, Werenski is going to begin his NHL career with an enormous weight of expectations on his shoulders. Most predictions see him on the second line, partnered with Jack Johnson, but it’s possible he could start the season on the third pairing, partnered with Dalton Prout or Cody Goloubef, and given a chance to get his feet wet before working his way up the roster.
Werenski’s strengths are his skating, positioning, and an absolute cannon of a shot. That should make him a natural for power play work, and it’s quite likely that he’ll see time on the second PP unit, where he’ll have the opportunity to put up some points.
I would not be shocked to see him need 10-20 games to really get his skates under him at the NHL level, but I think it’s quite likely we’ll see Werenski put up 15-20 points from the blue line this season, with the potential for more depending on how he is utilized on special teams, and how quickly he adapts to the speed of the NHL game.
That said, I would love nothing better than to be proven wrong, and see him shred the NHL en route to a Calder Trophy nomination.