Before the Michigan hockey team took the ice in the middle of November, there was one player no one could stop talking about:
The freshman forward was originally planning on playing for Harvard, but as other leagues started announcing their calendars and it was speculated that the Ivy League wouldn’t be playing, he chose to reconsider. Beniers came to the Wolverines after a standout season with the U.S. Hockey National Team Development Program last year, racking up seven goals and a team-leading 16 total points.
“A guy like him, you got the NHL draft hanging over your head,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Everybody’s telling you how good you are. You’re ranked 10th in one draft (prediction), you’re ranked first in another one. Then you have the world junior team trials in October, and then you got the announcement in December. There’s so many things outside things going on.”
With so much expectation in the air, many wondered if he’d live up to the hype.
It took him exactly seven minutes and 46 seconds to set the record straight. Beniers came out of the gates hot, scoring the Wolverines’ first goal of the season against Arizona State. He added another during the third period, ending the game as the only Michigan player to tally multiple goals in a debut that squashed all doubts.
Three months later, Beniers leads the team with nine goals and stands at third with 19 total points. On Friday, he notched three of the Wolverines’ four goals, putting up his first collegiate hat trick — and Michigan’s first of the season.
“It was a great feeling, definitely,” Beniers said. “A lot of guys out there on my line made some nice passes to me, so I was just in areas where I put them in, and we just had a good team win.”
The first of Friday’s goals came toward the end of the first period. As Arizona State’s goaltender moved left to block what he assumed would be a shot from freshman defenseman Owen Power, Beniers was waiting on the right side of the crease. Power passed the puck, which Beniers easily tapped in.
The next came midway through the second period, this time on a knee-down shot from the left side of the crease. Beniers completed the trifecta in the third period, using his speed to fly past every defender and burying an unobstructed shot on goal.
Beniers gave the credit for the last goal to the defensemen’s ability to play the puck up the side.
“I was coming in with speed, and I was just able to get it by the goaltender under his glove,” Beniers said. “It was a good goal, and I think it did a good job putting them away.”
As much as Beniers shies away from praise, he’s one of the Wolverines’ top-five players in just about any metric you can think of — total shots, shot percentage, plus-minus. Although those standout performances don’t come in every game, Beniers has provided a key backbone for this young Michigan team. Pearson called Beniers one of the “most consistent and all around” freshman players he’s encountered in his 39-year career.
“He’s got a motor that’s always on,” Pearson said after Friday’s game. “Tonight, he moved the puck a little bit better and earlier to guys, and he got it back and he finished. He got his shots on net and I’m really happy for him, because I know he’s probably wanted to finish a little bit more and score a little bit more, but he’s an extremely talented player.”
Pearson admits Beniers has room to grow. It took time for him to get adjusted to the college level of play — Pearson would estimate about 10 games — and that transition is never easy. Excluding his two highest-scoring games against the Sun Devils, Beniers has had just four other goals in 18 games.
But even when he’s not scoring, Beniers facilitates offense for others — as evidenced by his 10 assists — and Michigan will rely on him to do just that this weekend against Minnesota.
He missed the Wolverines’ first two contests against the Golden Gophers earlier this year, games which Michigan lost 1-3 and 0-4, respectively. Playing against the No. 3 team in the country with arguably the most talented roster, Beniers will have the opportunity to once again prove that he lives up to the astronomical preseason expectations.
According to Pearson, he already has.
“Yeah, he’s exceeded them.”