Here’s the thing — the Michigan hockey team didn’t need another forward in its incoming recruiting class. It already had two commits likely to go top 10 in the 2021 NHL Draft, and another two borderline first-rounders eligible for the 2020 Draft.
Without Matthew Beniers, the Wolverines would have an elite class of scorers and playmakers coming in this season.
With him it’s downright ludicrous.
Beniers also projects as a top-10 pick in 2021, and it’s easy to see why. His quick feet and puck skills helped him notch a team-leading 18 goals in 44 games for the U.S. National Under-18 Team last season, but he’s more than just a pure goal scorer.
“His competitiveness on the puck, his willingness to win puck battles, to block shots, to do the dirty things that help you win hockey games really is what makes him special,” Seth Appert, a former U.S. National Team Development Program coach, said. “And then his talent combined with that makes him very unique.”
One of those puck battles came in the 2019 World Juniors group stage:
Beniers’ quick hands give him an inherent advantage in one-on-one situations, and his positioning at the turnover was enough to create that scenario. But what makes this play impressive is that he wasn’t even the first to the puck — the replay clearly shows that the defender hacked at it first.
From there, Beniers manages to collect the bouncing puck, push it through the defender’s legs and still control it enough to deliver a perfect pass to his teammate. In a span of seconds, he showcases impressive speed, puck control, vision and balance. It would have been the assist of the tournament if not for a ridiculous save from Sweden’s goalie.
That vision is equally evident from the defensive end:
This is an example of two teammates perfectly in sync. From the moment he picks up the loose puck in front of his own goal, Beniers knows where he’s going with it. He waits just long enough for his teammate to get past the defense while still avoiding an offside, and then delivers a perfect puck for a golden scoring opportunity.
The ability to see the play developing, identify a passing lane and send a flawless pass that quickly is invaluable at the collegiate level. That level of instinct and understanding can create odd-man rushes and, ultimately, goals.
“(At the NTDP, we) try to get our players to play this aggressive, attacking, instinctual game,” Appert said. “He has a lot of those things innately as well, and I think those things were just enhanced here.”
He can make those same cross-ice passes in the offensive zone, too:
Again, Beniers knows exactly where he’s going with that puck, but this time, he’s deceptive about it. He uses his eyes to draw the defender toward teammate Dylan Peterson — No. 25 in the video — opening up space to hit fellow Michigan commit Thomas Bordeleau just outside the slot. Bordeleau casually undresses the defender, and the rest is history.
When the season starts, college hockey will likely be an adjustment for Beniers. He’ll be playing against opponents that are older and more experienced, and he could be in for a rude awakening.
But he’s been through that before. In 2019, at just 17 years-old, he was called up for the Under-18 World Juniors Championship, where he played alongside a certain Jack Hughes.
“The beauty of him getting called up that first year is that he can slide in any role,” Appert said. “He’s skilled enough to play with Jack Hughes if there’s a spot on Jack’s line, but he’s also gritty enough to fulfill roles that the bottom six forwards have to fill.”