Signing Andre Burakovsky was Seattle’s biggest splash in the 2022 free agency period. Acquiring Oliver Bjorkstrand in a trade from Columbus was the team’s most consequential offseason move overall. But, if the Kraken make a push up the standings in their second season, it will likely be because rookie holdover Matty Beniers has arrived on the scene as a top-of-the-lineup player. Setting aside the goaltenders, no Seattle player has the potential to make a bigger difference in year two.
Like my previous player breakdowns, I have compiled all of Matty’s shifts from three of his games in a playlist on Youtube for you to follow along. Here are links to each of the separate videos:
- April 26, 2022, Seattle Kraken at Vancouver Canucks: First period, second period, and third period.
- April 27, 2022, Los Angeles Kings versus Seattle Kraken: First period, second period, and third period.
- April 29, 2022, San Jose Sharks versus Seattle Kraken: First period, second period, and third period.
Additionally, here is a compilation of all of Matty Beniers’s scoring points for the Kraken in 2021-22:
A blend of elite secondary skills and uncertainty as to how his skills will translate at the highest level, particularly across a grinding NHL schedule, leaves a wide range of potential outcomes for Matty Beniers in 2021-22. I am bullish on Beniers as a top-six center long term, but it is likely best to keep immediate expectations in check. If the trajectory of players with comparable skill sets is any indication, we may see a transition year before Beniers settles into top-of-the-lineup production next year.
Beniers, a 19-year-old left shot center, is a native of Hingham, Mass. He spent two seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Program in 2018-19 and 2019-20 before committing to attend Harvard University and play for the Crimson in 2020-21. When the COVID-19 pandemic caused the Ivy League to cancel the 2020-21 season, Beniers shifted gears and committed to the University of Michigan.
Beniers was a point-per-game player for the star-studded Wolverines as a true freshman and emerged as a consensus top-10 player in the 2021 draft. Some public scouting sources, including Elite Prospects, had Beniers as their top available prospect in that draft. Ultimately, Seattle selected Beniers with the second overall pick, making him the franchise’s first ever entry draft selection.
Beniers returned to the University of Michigan for his Sophomore season with Frozen Four and national title aspirations in mind. Abounding with talent but lacking the upperclassman leadership and grit that national champions often bank on, and perhaps crippled by a dysfunctional coaching situation, the Wolverines fell short of their goal. Individually, however, Beniers’s play continued to trend up, and Matty earned plaudits for his play on the Team USA at the 2021 Olympic Games.
After the Wolverines season ended, the 6-foot-2, 175-pound Beniers signed his Seattle contract and joined the Kraken with ten games remaining on the 2021-22 schedule. As fans likely recall, he impressed right away. He recorded his first point on a pinpoint cross-ice pass in his first game and notched his first goal in his first game in the Emerald City.
Previous production and usage
Beniers was deployed as Michigan’s most trusted forward in 2021-22, logging obscene minute totals due to his placement among Michigan’s top-six forwards and his role on both the power play and penalty kill. He played in most crucial situations and did many of the little things that helped that team get as far as it did.
With Seattle, Beniers was thrust into a prominent role right away, logging time on the first unit power play together with top-nine forward minutes.
While his per-game usage was significant, it is simply a fact that Beniers has never faced anything resembling the grind of an NHL season. Indeed, if all goes according to plan this season, Matty will play in more games this year than he has in his previous two hockey seasons combined. Shane Wright – a player often criticized for missing time when he chose not play abroad during the 2020-21 OHL shutdown – nonetheless recorded more games on the ice last year alone than Beniers did in his two seasons with Michigan and his short stint in Seattle.
Beniers told the media at Kraken camp that he added north of 10 pounds this offseason in an effort to meet the physicality of the NHL game. Theoretically, this added strength should help him meet the demands of the longer season too, but it is one of the bigger question marks on Beniers heading into this year. For a player that survives on short area quickness and elusiveness, what happens when the grind of the schedule takes a half stride out of his game?
Having returned to every minute of Beniers’s brief stint with the Kraken in spring 2022, I’m here with good news: You remember Matty played well, but he was even better than you remember.
His creativity on offense with the puck on his stick, skating agility, excellent passing, and committed and intelligent work off the puck are a strong base for a player that should make the game very easy for his linemates moving forward.
High-end vision and anticipation on the puck
If Beniers ascends to elite status as player, it will likely be on the strength of his map-like understanding of the ice and the positioning and expected movements of the players around him. At any place on the rink or moment in the game, Beniers has a seemingly innate ability to process and diagnose the most favorable possession plays to neutralize an opposing check. This manifests in tight area passes, dekes, and tight turns. In open ice, he is able to read and solve for the most favorable play, skating or passing, with tremendous efficiency.
For example, for his first professional point, he looked off the defense and found Ryan Donato on the weak side with a no-look, on-the-tape pass for a one-timer goal. A few games later, against the Canucks, it was a high-danger, short-distance, one-touch pass that turned into a goal. Against the Kings, a subtle short pass off a spin yielded an open high-slot chance.
But just as important are his subtler plays, like defensive zone passes that break pressure and key the breakout, stretch passes through the neutral zone, or short-zone entry passes that allow for the Kraken to set up in the offensive zone without resorting to a corner board battle.
At his best, Beniers makes the game look simple and easy in the way some great ones do. Anticipation and vision are the skills that set apart Sidney Crosby, for example. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Beniers is the next Sid. All I mean is: this “unflashy” skill can be a baseline for a truly excellent player in this league.
Above-average off-the-puck positioning and play diagnosis
Beniers also does very good, subtle work off the puck. He gets to free areas to make himself available for a pass or shot to keep a play going. For his first goal as a professional, he read that there was going to be a scramble at the net front and crashed to be in position for a rebound. A lesser player may have hung back on the periphery in this scenario.
Similarly, in this clip he beats the checking defender to the slot and receives a centering pass and directs it on goal for a high-danger chance.
Above-average transition possession, skating speed, and agility
Matty Beniers has strong puck possession skills to match above-average skating and agility. Assembled together this package makes for a fearsome transition player capable of breaking a neutral zone trap by himself. In this clip, he receives an aerial pass and achieves a zone entry with almost comical hand-eye coordination. Here, Beniers’s ability to control into the zone against pressure leads directly to a goal. The Kraken were lacking in this skill set at times last year, which caused the team to rely heavily on less efficient dump-and-chase plays. Beniers has the skills to be a transition game focal point for his line.
Above-average backchecking and defensive support
Beniers is not yet a high-end defensive forward, but he shows certain traits that suggest he may ultimately carve out a strong defensive reputation. In defensive transition, Beniers has the mindset of a third defender. He makes best use of his above-average speed on backcheck after quad-killing backcheck. He is also fully committed to getting low and supporting the defenders when the opponent is established in the zone. He often keys or supports a defensive zone breakout from below the circles, and he shows significant stick skills as a defender. On the other hand, he needs to add physicality if he is going to stand up to the toughest defensive zone assignments at the next level.
Beniers is often so busy creating for others that he does not find himself in position for scoring opportunities, but when he does, he has demonstrated a quick, accurate wrist shot and willingness to unleash an off-wing one-timer on the power play. He also has shown that he is willing to sacrifice his body to get to prime scoring areas.
Beniers’s NCAA shot analytics suggest he will bring value as a shooter by beating his expected goal rates based on shot type and positioning on the ice. On the other hand, entire games will go by without Beniers recording a shot. As Beniers matures he needs to make sure this is not a frequent occurrence.
Having said all this, Beniers may have answered any lingering questions about his shooting ability in Monday’s preseason game against Edmonton.
At this point, Beniers cannot play a stout, physical game. He has plenty of length to succeed, but he entered the league with a strikingly slight frame. He thinks the game at such a high level, he is able to navigate himself away from contact and activate his stick to win battles when his body cannot. Even so, his limited physical strength costs him at times. For example, in this clip, he knows he doesn’t have the strength to A-frame along the boards, so he tries to flip the puck away, but concedes a turnover.
That said, Beniers and the Kraken know his lack of size could hold him back. Beniers admitted he prioritized adding some size this offseason and does look stronger already. Still, his ability to hold his own physically at the NHL level is a question mark in the short term.
But I have few concerns (aside from injury questions) long term. If his physical play can take a half stride forward, he should not have any difficulty winning his share of puck battles based on his strong stick skill. He’ll never be the biggest guy, but his mental game should be enough.
Below-average faceoff production
Beniers checked in slightly below bar on faceoffs during his time at Michigan, though that should be balanced against the fact that he was frequently checking top-level competition. In his brief stint with Seattle, Beniers won just 42.4 percent of his draws. A minor but important area for improvement, particularly if the goal is to trust Beniers’s responsible two-way play at the end of close games.
Maturity and focus to be determined
Watching the tape, you will find moments of immaturity from Beniers. In this clip, he finishes a check seemingly out of frustration, but it takes him out of position to set up the neutral zone trap or backcheck. He also can rely a bit too much on his stick skill at times and play himself into a mistake where a simpler play would have sufficed. On this play, he probably eased off his backcheck thinking his defenders had possession in hand; but, ultimately, his check gets free and scores. All of these things are not unexpected from a young player, but they serve as a useful reminder that he is young.
As with any young, skilled player, whether he hits his ceiling depends in large part on what goes on between the ears. Beniers needs to show he can learn and adapt as defenses start to key in on him, likely with a physical edge. He needs to display mental stamina across a long season. While I think there is good cause to be optimistic, he needs to go out there and show it, day in and day out.
Projecting Beniers to the Kraken
Beniers has a slippery, creative offensive toolkit. He is capable of keying offense with high-level transition play and offensive zone passing. To my eyes, he projects as a Robert Thomas-like player in his prime. A high-end facilitator that glues together and drives offense for his line. Thomas notched nine goals and 24 assists as a 19-year-old before hitting point-per-game status as a 22-year-old this past year. I could envision Beniers with a comparable career trajectory moving forward. Another pass-first center that comes to mind, David Krejci, similarly displayed modest production in his first year – six goals and 21 assists – before breaking out with 73 points in his second year.
On the one hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if Beniers outperforms Robert Thomas’s age 19 season based on opportunity alone; early reports from camp have Beniers on the first power play unit, for example. But there will be ups-and-downs as Matty looks for his footing during a long NHL season. How will he look in the second half of a back-to-back in March? We do not know the answer and it would be foolhardy to assume there will not be quiet, rough stretches for the young center. But I’m looking forward to tracking him all year. There’s no player more essential to the team’s long-term future.