On August 20th, the University of Michigan announced that Matthew (Matty) Beniers will be returning for his sophomore season.
The news was somewhat surprising, despite the fact that many expected this outcome. Beniers, who was selected second overall by the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, had a stellar rookie season for the Wolverines.
Through 24 games, the young center had 10 goals and 24 points. He was also named to the Big-Ten All-Freshman team and captured U-M Rookie of the Year honors. Additionally, Beniers represented the United States at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton—where he won a gold medal.
At just 18 years old, his hockey resume is already quite extensive. Many thought he would at least get the chance to showcase his skills at Kraken training camp this fall, but that won’t be the case. Instead, he’ll return and play on what looks to be one of the most stacked NCAA hockey teams in recent memory.
Beniers will join the likes of Owen Power (taken first overall in 2021), Luke Hughes (taken fourth overall in 2021), and four other NHL first-round picks. Might be a good year for hockey fans to take a road trip down to Ann Arbor.
— Michigan Hockey (@umichhockey) August 20, 2021
While playing on a championship-caliber team sounds all fine and dandy, is it really the best move from a development standpoint? Like most 18-year-old NHL prospects, he could stand to add a few more pounds of muscle. Other than that, what’s to say he couldn’t contribute to Seattle’s lineup right now? More importantly, does he stand to gain anything by playing in the NCAA on “easy mode”?
At this point, Beniers remains unsigned. That’s obviously no accident, as GM Ron Francis has undoubtedly had several conversations with Beniers and his agent. It’s all part of the plan. After all, not every teenager with the potential to be a superstar is ready right off the hop. The NHL could hypothetically overwhelm him into a mid-season demotion, much like what happened to Leon Draisaitl back in 2014-15.
Still, what does Beniers have left to prove at the collegiate level? Perhaps he’ll get 48 points instead of 24? Then what? The other option would be to let him marinate in the American Hockey League (AHL). Players coming from any major junior league within the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) must return to their junior team (unless they’re at least 20 years old) if they don’t make the NHL, but that rule does not apply to NCAA prospects.
Seattle will eventually be affiliated with a new AHL team in Palm Springs, but not until the 2022-23 season. This year, they’ll be sharing the Charlotte Checkers with the Florida Panthers. A situation like this presents a unique opportunity for Beniers. An AHL team, with two affiliated NHL teams, simply means twice the pool of potential prospects on the roster. Beniers would potentially be playing with other young talents such as Anton Lundell, Owen Tippett, and Aleksi Heponiemi.
And so it begins ❄️ pic.twitter.com/XFt6O3aQkU
— Charlotte Checkers (@CheckersHockey) August 30, 2021
The Checkers did not participate in last year’s AHL season due to COVID-19, but they won their division en route to being Calder Cup champions in 2018-19. They likely won’t dominate to a U-Michigan degree, but playing against men with good, skill-first players would only improve Beniers’ understanding of what it takes to contribute at the professional level.
Despite all of these potential options, Beniers’ return to Michigan is set in stone. He could get a taste of professional hockey later this year, if he’s brought up following the end of the collegiate season—like the Montreal Canadiens did with Cole Caufield. He would still need to be signed before that happened, but working out an ELC isn’t usually difficult.
If the Kraken end up in a playoff spot, or at least in the hunt, he could act as an equivalent to a trade-deadline acquisition. Until that happens, however, Beniers is nothing more than an elite prospect with another year of college hockey dominance ahead of him.
— Elite Prospects (@eliteprospects) August 25, 2021