Several Wolverines ranked high
by Derek O'Brien|20 JUL 2021
World Junior champion and men’s Worlds bronze medallist Matthew Beniers could be one of the early draft picks from the University of Michigan.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
No collegiate team has ever seen three players taken in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft, but that will almost certainly happen in 2021 with three University of Michigan Wolverines – Owen Power, Matthew Beniers and Kent Johnson – consistently ranked among the top 15 or better by all trusted scouting sources. On top of that, a fourth highly-ranked prospect – Luke Hughes of the U.S. National Team Development Program – has committed to join Michigan for the 2021/22 season.  

Power, Beniers, Johnson and Thomas Bordeleau all arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan for their freshman season in 2020/21 and made an immediate impact. All four were named to the Big Ten Freshman Team. Bordeleau, who was selected 38th overall by the San Jose Sharks last summer, was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. 

“This year at Michigan was great,” said Beniers, who recorded 24 points in 24 games for the Wolverines and was also named to the NCAA’s All-Rookie Team and Honorable Mention All-Star Team. “The pace of the game was higher than I’d played before.”

“It was crazy,” said Johnson, Beniers’ linemate who recorded 27 points in 26 games and also made the All-Rookie Team and Honorable Mention All-Star Team. “Definitely a lot of fun but also a lot to learn from too. The biggest thing was just how good the group of guys was and playing with them every night was awesome.”

Johnson said about Beniers: “It’s really nice to be able to play with a guy who takes care of the ice, all 200 feet, just buzzing around there all game. He’s so good at transitioning the puck our of our D-zone and into the O-zone, and I’m just really lucky to get to play with him.”

“He’s a great person and a great player,” Beniers said about Johnson. “He’s super-skilled, sees the ice well, really good stick skills, can score goals and make plays, so you get a lot of offensive skill, and something we saw this year is he really improved his all-around game a lot, going into corners, winning battles, playing defence. I think that gets overlooked a little bit, but just being on his line this year, he’s a great linemate and great teammate as well.”

In addition to his college season, Beniers also represented the USA in a couple of international tournaments, winning a gold medal at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton and a bronze at the men’s national team at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Riga.

“Going over there was great, playing with a bunch of pros and being around them on and off the ice,” Beniers said about the World Championship experience. “It’s definitely a different atmosphere. Everyone always says you’ve gotta act like a pro, play like a pro, train like a pro, and those guys really embody that. It’s nice to see first-hand that they take care of their bodies so well, on and off the ice. It was pretty cool to be there in that atmosphere and play against older guys and get that experience, how the pace is going to be, and all the different things.”

“At the World Juniors and the Worlds, the pace gets a little bit higher every step of the way,” said Beniers, talking about the progression of his game and how far he is from the NHL. “Over the next few years, I’m not totally sure what’s going to happen but I think I’m pretty close. It takes a lot of work to get there and stay there and make an impact. You’ve gotta be ready mentally and physically, and I’m not totally sure when that’s going to happen but I hope it’s soon. That would be pretty cool.”

While Power received a lot of attention for his play at the Worlds for eventual champion Canada, Beniers had an impressive tournament for the USA as well, recording a goal and an assist in six games. Beniers wasn’t the only native of Hingham, Massachusetts on the USA team at the Worlds, as there was veteran team captain Brian Boyle.

“Being there with Brian was awesome,” he said. “He was like a big brother or mentor to me. I was a young guy and didn’t really know a lot of people and he went out of his way to make sure I was feeling comfortable, gave me tips along the way in practices. That was really helpful.” 

Beniers had previously been a member of the United States National Team Development Program and played at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship, where he won a bronze medal. Johnson, on the other hand, hails from North Vancouver, British Columbia and chose the college route over the Western Hockey League, but he thinks both routes are fine. 

“I think both routes are great and I would encourage young kids to think about both and not to get stuck in one path,” said Johnson. “For me, I was maybe a bit of a later bloomer and went to the BCHL for my 16-year-old year and I loved playing in Trail. Then, the late birth date gave me the opportunity to play college hockey in my draft year and it was a great development path for me.”

Johnson continued: “I learned some areas that I can try to improve in that I couldn’t see as well in the BCHL because I was dominating. Just getting a bit more explosive will help.”

Despite being projected as a possible first-overall pick, Power has indicated that he’s leaning toward returning to Michigan for his sophomore season, which Johnson and Beniers are obviously excited about. 

“Owen had a great year at the University of Michigan and played great at the men’s Worlds,” said Beniers, whose American team beat Canada when the teams met in Riga. “He got a lot of opportunities and really took advantage of them. He’s a good friend and I wish the best for him. He’s such an all-around player – he’s big and moves his feet. He’s definitely a contender for the number-one pick. I’m not sure what’s going to happen but I hope he goes as high as he can.”

“I could definitely sing his praises all day,” Johnson said about Power. “When I got to Michigan, I could tell how special he was and it was really fun to be able to train with that guy every day. And then at the World Championship, it wasn’t surprising to me to see what he did. Just seeing how good he did there was awesome to see.”

Johnson continued: “I’m pretty confident with the way my training’s going and we’ve got a pretty exciting group in Michigan. I think everybody’s really excited about going for a national championship this year.”

The crop of talented young Michigan players seem to sense some unfinished business from last season. The season itself was shortened by the COVID pandemic and played mostly in front of no fans. And then after earning a bid to the NCAA tournament, the Wolverines had to withdraw due to positive test results within the program. 

There were already three first-rounders on the team last year with Cam York (Philadelphia in 2019), Johnny Beecher (Boston in 2019) and Brendan Brisson (Vegas in 2020), as well as second-rounder Bordeleau (San Jose in 2020) and third-round goalie Erik Portillo (Buffalo in 2019). The only one not eligible to return is York, who suited up for a few games with the Flyers late in the 2020/21 NHL season.

If that’s not enough, Luke Hughes, younger brother of Quinn and Jack, is joining the team. If he’s drafted in the top 10, which seems especially both of his brothers’ teams – the New Jersey Devils and Vancouver Canucks – have picks in the top nine, it will be the first time that three brothers have all been taken so early in the Draft. Like Quinn, he’s a defenceman and will be a Wolverine.

“I’m super excited to be going to Michigan,” said Hughes. “I think we’re going to have a really good team next year and hopefully we can go pretty far and try to win it all. Watching my brother Quinn play there and how much he grew as a player but more as a person. You meet really smart people there and make long-time friends, so I’m really looking forward to it.”

Hughes missed the U18s in Texas last spring due to a foot injury but he’s looking forward to this year’s World Juniors in Edmonton, where he could be one of three Wolverines on the U.S. roster.

“I’ll be attending camp,” Hughes said of the U.S. U20 camp in Plymouth, Michigan. “I’ve been skating for five weeks now and working out for eight or nine, so I feel really good, almost 100 per cent, just trying to get my timing back. I just finished rehab and there’s no problem with the toe – it feels great and I’ll be ready to go.”

Several Michigan players attended last year’s online Draft, which saw Brisson, Bordeleau and freshman defenceman Jacob Truscott all picked from the team. 

“I was at the Draft last year with all the guys and obviously it can be a stressful time, but just doing what you can to enjoy it with your friends is something that I took away from that experience,” said Johnson.

The players are in regular contact with each other, but it’s not as if the Draft is the only thing they talk about. 

“I don’t think any of us really put too much stress on the Draft and what everyone’s saying,” said Beniers. “It’s more just ‘What’s going on?’ and ‘How are the interviews going?’ and stuff like that. We talk a little bit here but not much about the Draft.”