Last summer, Matt Beniers was preparing to play hockey for his freshman NCAA season with Harvard University. It was his first year of NHL Draft eligibility and one loaded with high expectations for the center. Then Covid-19 became an issue as hockey leagues around the world were making the tough call not to play. That included the Ivy League which meant no season for Harvard and left Beniers scrambling. Beniers would land on his feet to turn in a spectacular season and is poised to be selected at the top of July’s NHL Draft, perhaps even going second overall to the Seattle Kraken.
When the Ivy League announced it was not going to play, Beniers was able to transfer to the University of Michigan. He had been playing in nearby Plymouth, MI for the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP) and was familiar with the coaching staff.
That made the decision easier.
“I just kind of had to make a hockey decision and make a decision for myself,” Beniers said during Michigan’s media day in the fall. “It just kind of fit all the things that I wanted in a school, obviously, great academics and a great program. A lot of guys I already knew were going there.”
Once he made the decision to become a Wolverine, the excitement grew.
Michigan already had two impressive incoming freshmen in defenseman Owen Power and forward Kent Johnson. All three players were projected by NHL’s Central scouting as potential first-round picks in the NHL Draft heading into the season.
“I didn’t really know how great it would be until I got here,” Beniers added. “Every day we’re pushing each other. And those two, like, they obviously also love hockey, and it’s what they want to do with the rest of their life. So, it’s kind of cool being around guys that just love the game and want to get better every day. It pushes me, I push them and so I think it will be a lot of benefit from playing together.”
Playing mostly against older college players, Beniers had a strong season, but Michigan’s run for a National Championship was cut down. Again, Covid-19 was the culprit as the Wolverines had to withdraw from the NCAA tournament due to a number of positive tests.
That disappointment hasn’t soured Beniers’ NHL Draft expectations which will come to a head on July 23 and just may land him in Seattle with the Kraken.
Matt Beniers by the numbers
Beniers, 18, started drawing attention after a strong 2019-2020 season with the USNTDP, splitting time between the U18 and USHL squads. In total, he appeared in 60 games and scored 25 goals to go with 32 assists for a total of 57 points.
He was also a key part of Team USA’s gold medal winning club at the World Junior Championship in January. Beniers was one of the youngest players on the team, a tournament dominated by 19-year-old NHL-drafted players, but by tournament’s end was one of the Americans’ top forwards.
Over the past couple of weeks, he won a bronze medal playing for Team USA at the IIHF World Championship. Playing against older professionals, he recorded a pair of points in six games but drew rave reviews.
He has the size, listed at 6-foot-1 and 174 pounds, and as a ‘late birthday’ he will turn 19 just after the start of the upcoming NHL season.
What do the scouts say about Beniers?
Beniers is consistently ranked high among scouting services. NHL Central Scouting ranked him as the sixth-best North American skater while other services either had him ranked first or second overall.
Chris Peters from Hockey Sense compares him to Chicago Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews in terms of a guy who didn’t pile up numbers in college but who displayed the necessary skill to be an elite two-way center and a guy that will make those around him better.
“I view a guy like Matty Beniers as a franchise building block,” Peters told the Sound Of Hockey Podcast. “I was talking to a scout and he called Matty Beniers a May-June player, meaning this is a guy that’s going to win the Stanley Cup, this is a guy that’s going to be there in the playoffs…He’s such an impact player, he impacts the game in all zones, and then he does have the skill to finish.”
Scouting reports on Beniers all hail him as the quintessential 200-foot center. He hounds pucks in the defensive zone but can quickly transition into offense and lead a rush the other way. His vision is superb, and teammates have to be ready for his pass.
It’s also how he would scout himself when asked what makes him a quality player.
“I would say either my hockey IQ or my ability to play in all situations,” Beniers said about himself. “Just my ability to play defense, produce offensively, but also and play penalty kill, power play, kind of whatever they need, I can fill that role or whatever role they want me to fill.”
Beniers’ skill on display
After winning the second overall pick in the NHL Draft Lottery on June 2, Seattle general manager Ron Francis was asked if there was a player who would be able to step directly into the NHL. Most players need a year or two of further development after being drafted with maybe three or four playing the same year they are selected.
“You wait to get them into training camp and see how they play and how they perform and make sure that they’re ready,” Francis said. “Not only from a hockey game standpoint, but also physically and mentally. It’s not an easy league, and less and less players are stepping out of the draft and stepping into the NHL.”
Could Beniers be such a player?
With his late birthday, he’ll be nearly a year older than most of the players drafted which will certainly help. But his skills will perhaps be the biggest factor.
“He has the physical package, he’s strong, he’s competitive, and I’ve never seen him intimidated in any game.” Peters said. “He has the speed and the quickness; his brain operates at the level that you need at the NHL level. I do think Beniers has the most likely game to translate because the other thing that he can do is you don’t need to put them on your top two lines, you can put them on your third line and he’s still gonna find a way to make an impact.”
Watching Beniers, those skills become evident quickly.
In the clip below from the World Juniors you see the definition of a 200-foot player. Beniers retrieves a loose puck in his own end and quickly turns up ice the other way. He hits the neutral zone with speed and has his head up to spot an open winger at the blue line. Beniers connects a perfect pass for a shot on goal.
Beniers can play in all situations, especially on the penalty kill. In this clip he makes an absurd play on the kill while also showing off how strong he is on the puck. Good luck getting it from him.
During the World Junior Championship gold medal game against Canada, he showed off his whole tool kit on one shift. Here he handles the puck through traffic in the neutral zone and finds an open shooter for a high-danger scoring opportunity. After the shot is stopped, Beniers hustles down the rebound to set up another teammate.
While he has all the skills and speed to be a two-way center, Beniers can finish. It’s an aspect of his game that can get overlooked. Here we see him put himself in a position to receive a pass for a scoring chance, one that he buries.
Will the Seattle Kraken draft Matt Beniers second overall?
Seattle may not have a say, as the Buffalo Sabres may want to snatch Beniers first overall. This is a draft year where there are no sure things at the top of the list. Rather, there are five or six guys who all have the ability to turn into impact players.
Beniers is certainly in that group and if Buffalo goes in another direction with the first pick, it will be hard to imagine Francis passing up a chance to add a player like Beniers.