The Columbus Blue Jackets made Zach Werenski the eighth overall pick in the 2015 draft, but the 18-year-old defenseman won’t be suiting up in Ohio quite yet.
Instead of playing for the Blue Jackets in 2015-16, Werenski will instead return to the NCAA, where he plays for the University of Michigan. This past season, on a Michigan team that finished third in the Big Ten, Werenski was a standout, scoring nine goals and 25 points in 35 games.
There were rumors that Werenski could be heading to the OHL, where the London Knights owned his rights after selecting him in the second round of the 2013 draft. But Werenski confirmed to NHL.com that he would be returning for his sophomore season with the Wolverines.
While others taken in the first round are heading for the NHL as soon as this season, that the Blue Jackets are taking the slow route with Werenski is a good sign for both player and team going forward.
Though Werenski possesses all the qualities of an NHL ready defenseman — he’s 6-foot-2, 200-plus pounds and is a strong enough skater to play in the big league — the Blue Jackets choosing to take the slower development route with the young blueliner is the right move. And as a team that has shown signs of turning the corner in terms of drafting and developing homegrown talent, it’s another positive for the future of the Blue Jackets.
By staying in Michigan for a second season, and possibly beyond, Columbus gives him a chance to develop further, grow into his frame more and work on the things the club wants him to work on. One common knock is that Werenski isn’t physical enough for his size, and that’s certainly a facet of his game that can improve as he ages.
Going back to the NCAA also provides Werenski another opportunity to play for the American team at the World Junior Championship. Though he could have competed had he been with Columbus this season, going back to the college ranks makes Weresnki a near lock for the club. He participated at the 2015 tournament, potting one goal and two points in five contests, but heading back in 2016 likely means he’ll take on a bigger role and more responsibility which will aid in his growth.
Currently, Werenski is playing at USA Hockey’s national junior evaluation camp, where he has scored one goal and three points in four games. In Wednesday’s game against Finland, Werenski scored the overtime winner.