When Kraken general manager Ron Francis announced that Matty Beniers would be the team’s first-ever selection in the NHL Entry Draft, Seattle fans rejoiced. The spanking new franchise had selected a future cornerstone for the organization, a young man with skill, tenacity, and an innate ability to lead his teammates.
Among seasoned hockey fans, Beniers became a household name in the leadup to the 2021 draft and was well deserving of his No. 2 overall selection. Not only was he a central figure on an outstanding University of Michigan team, he also played a key role for Team USA at the 2021 World Junior Championship, where the Americans won gold for just the fifth time in the 44-year history of the tournament.
Aside from third-string goalie Logan Stein, Beniers was the only player on the American roster that still had draft eligibility during last year’s tournament and was the youngest player on the roster. He scored a goal and two assists in seven games and averaged 17:05 of ice time as the team’s second-line center.
In May, Beniers took a step up to the IIHF World Championship, where he played with bona fide NHL players and notched a goal and an assist in six games, helping USA to a bronze medal. He was again the youngest and only draft eligible player on that roster.
Now, in his final year of eligibility, he’s back at Team USA’s World Junior Championship training camp with eyes on a massive role for the 2022 tournament.
“I’m excited,” Beniers said Monday on a Zoom call with members of the media. “I think after last tournament— it was awesome winning gold, but you know, I think I expected a little more out of myself to contribute, and I wasn’t able to do that in the point standings. I think this year it’s the same expectation that I’m going to be kind of that guy… Hopefully I can do that for the team.”
Beniers and the Americans accomplished something truly remarkable in 2021, taking down Team Canada to bring home gold. Although much of the roster has turned over, he’s hoping the players that were part of last year’s win can build off of the experience.
“I think we did something very special last year and it was really great, awesome,” he said. “But the next thing is here, and we’re kind of starting to turn the page and not forgetting about it. But remembering what worked and what didn’t work and try to implement that into the team this year, try to do the same thing, and try to do it even better.”
Teammates follow the lead of Matty Beniers
Though captains have not been named yet, Beniers will almost certainly factor into the leadership group for Team USA as one of six players currently in camp who participated in the tournament last year. He already serves as alternate captain at Michigan in just his sophomore season, and his teammates on Team USA confirm that they look to him to pave the way.
Another player returning from last year’s gold-medal winning group is University of North Dakota defenseman Jake Sanderson, who was selected No. 5 overall by the Ottawa Senators in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. When Sanderson was asked Monday who he viewed as the leaders on the team, he didn’t hesitate in placing Beniers at the top of his list. “He’s not the most vocal guy, but when he is, guys listen. Just how he goes about his day, he’s a leader by example just by how hard he works, and he does all the right things.”
The Wolverines team on which Beniers plays his college hockey is special. There are seven first-round draft picks on the roster—an NCAA record—including four of the top five selections in 2021. The No. 4 overall pick was Luke Hughes, who is expected to make his first appearance at the WJC with Team USA later this month. We asked Hughes about Beniers on Monday, and he said, “He’s been a great resource for me and he’s a really good leader on our team at Michigan. I think he’s going to be a really good leader here too.”
Kraken keeping an eye on Beniers’ development
After Beniers was picked by the Kraken, there was some debate as to whether he would join Seattle right away or go back to Michigan for a second season. It wasn’t a surprise, though, to see Beniers and his cohort of collegiate superstars return to Ann Arbor.
Last season was wonky on a lot of levels, from having no fans in the stands at famed Yost Arena to the Wolverines getting disqualified from the NCAA Tournament at the last second due to positive COVID tests. After posting a point per game in 2020-21, Beniers is continuing to play well at the college level as a sophomore, notching 11 goals and 11 assists in 20 games. He is tied for the lead on his star-studded team in goals and is just one point off the team lead for scoring.
He is continuing to develop as a player, and Seattle is continuing to keep tabs from afar. Beniers says Troy Bodie, director of hockey and business operations for the Kraken’s future Palm Springs AHL affiliate, has been checking in with him regularly. “He’s kind of their development guy,” he says of Bodie. “He’s been to games and just mentions little things I can work on, but nothing too crazy.”
It’s a delicate balance for NHL teams to allow their drafted players to go through the process with their current teams and avoid interfering too much. “I think they understand we’ve got great coaches at Michigan where I’m playing, and [those coaches are] there every night, they’re there to help, and they kind of trust those guys that they’re going to help developing me and get me better. Once they kind of pass the torch, I’ll start to get more insight from the Kraken and what they think.”
So what does Beniers need to do to prepare himself for the jump to the NHL? “I think it’s just continue to get bigger, stronger, faster. The NHL, it’s a really fast-paced game. Everyone’s bigger and stronger and they’re all fighting to keep their job… I think that’s the biggest focus right now, and it’s always tough during the season to do that.”
Darren Brown is the Chief Content Officer at Sound Of Hockey and the host, producer, and editor of the Sound Of Hockey Podcast. He is an inconsistent beer league goalie who believes that five players have to make a mistake before the puck gets to him. Follow him on Twitter @DarrenFunBrown or email firstname.lastname@example.org.