Zach Werenski is highly regarded prospect in this year's draft. He's actually put up more offense than Noah Hanifin did this year in the NCAA, and is one of the top-producing NCAA rookie defensemen ever, despite not even being 18 years old at this year's draft. He's got good size, is regarded as an excellent skater, and demonstrates a great deal of intelligence on the ice. His defensive game is more of a work in progress than Hanifin's, but it's strong enough that Werenski was able to maintain a positive goal differential while on the ice five-on-five (that doesn't mean a lot, but we know he's probably not getting hammered).
Let's take a look at Werenski's comparables for help sussing out where he fits. As with Hanifin and Eichel, we'll need to use broader parameters than we do for the CHL because fewer players come to the NHL via college. As such, in the chart below, I've listed every defenseman who was either drafted out of the NCAA or played in the NCAA in his Draft +1 season while scoring between 0.91 and 0.49 adjusted points per game (so between 70% and 130% of Werenski's total) so long as he was selected between 6th and 16th overall from 1981 to 2014. Even though teams play many out-of-Conference games, I've adjusted each player's offense according to his Conference's scoring rate, normalizing it to a league that generates 6.0 goals per game. Here are the results:
One thing to notice right away is that, unlike most of the recent picks, his offense is actually being adjusted downward. This was the Big 10's first year of existence as a Conference, and it wasn't exactly a juggernaut with just two of the six teams ranked inside USCHO's top twenty at the end of the year (Minnesota at #12 and Werenski's own Michigan at #20). Ohio State and Wisconsin were especially bad defensively this year, with each team allowing more than 3.5 goals per game. And as it turns out, Werenski scored 13 points in 9 games against those two teams, scoring just 12 points in 24 games against everybody else. Now, there's nothing wrong with beating up on weaker opponents, but that's certainly something to keep in mind, even after nicking his offense a touch in the projection.
The comparables themselves have a pretty wide range. There are a few busts, a superstar and everything in between. In the chart below, I've listed each player's number of regular season games, his time on ice per game (if the NHL was recording TOI for more than half of the games he played), his points per game, and the first season he played in at least forty games (in this case, I'm pretending that everyone was first eligible for the draft using today's criteria; that's not technically the case because of past draft rules, but for this exercise, I think it makes sense).
Leetch is clearly well ahead of the group, and would represent the top end, and the number of players who posted somewhat similar offense and still busted needs to be understood within the context of each guy's age: almost all of the players I'm calling comparables are posting these numbers a full year older. The exception, A.J. Thelen, is the one guy that we should probably give some attention. Unlike Werenski, Thelen's footwork was an issue in his draft year despite the strong offensive showing. And then in his Draft +1 season, he immediately cratered, to the point that he first became a healthy scratch and then got kicked off the team. I'm going to go ahead and say that's probably not a typical trajectory.
Anyroad, Werenski is a very intriguing prospect. I think that the mild concerns about his defensive play and the fact that so much of his offense came against just two teams are enough to put him clearly below Hanifin and the rest of the five guys I've got above him, but I'd probably put Werenski down as the best bet in the next tier.
Connor McDavid - Comparables
Jack Eichel - Comparables
Mitch Marner - Comparables
Dylan Strome - Comparables
Ivan Provorov - Comparables
Noah Hanifin - Comparables
Jeremy Roy - Comparables
Timo Meier - Comparables
Lawson Crouse - Comparables
Evgeny Svechnikov - Comparables
Jakub Zboril - Comparables