Matthew Beniers did his research after Seattle hired Ron Francis as general manager July 18, 2019, when the NHL expansion team didn’t yet have a name. Watching video of Francis as a player, Beniers saw he was like him, a two-way center wearing No. 10.
The Seattle Kraken soon did their research and saw something in Beniers, and Francis announced Beniers as the first amateur draft pick in team history and the No. 2 pick in the 2021 NHL Draft on Friday.
“I guess I represent kind of the way that he played,” Beniers said wearing a Kraken cap at home in Hingham, Massachusetts. “It’s pretty fun.”
It’s a lot to expect Beniers to be another Francis, even if Francis said of the comparison, “I wish I could skate that fast.”
Francis is a Hockey Hall of Famer, two-time Stanley Cup champion and winner of the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. He ranks second in assists (1,249), fifth in points (1,798) and fifth in games played (1,731) in NHL history. That’s a high bar.
But this was a landmark moment for the Kraken, two days after they selected their initial roster in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, and Beniers was a fitting choice as they start to establish their culture and identity.
“He fits every box that we talked about,” director of amateur scouting Robert Kron said from the Kraken draft room at the Space Needle. “He’s an extremely hard-working kid. He’s an extremely talented hockey player. He’s a smart kid. He’s got a very positive attitude. He’s very, very exciting to watch and very exciting to be around, so I think we feel very, very happy having him.”
Mel Pearson, Beniers’ coach at the University of Michigan, called him a coach’s dream, because he plays the right way. He has good offensive skill but doesn’t cheat defense for offense. He plays the same on the road and at home, the same against top teams and lesser competition. He’s the type of player and person around whom you build.
“When you talk about culture and setting a culture, you can’t get much better than Matt Beniers, and that’s off the ice, on the ice, the way he carries himself,” Pearson said over the phone from Ann Arbor, Michigan. “He’s very gregarious. When he walks in the door, you can’t wait to see him, because he’s so positive. He’s so outgoing, he just draws people towards him. He makes your room better by not even stepping on the ice, just by being the person he is.”
The question is whether Beniers is ready for the NHL or needs more time in college.
“I’m not totally sure how far out I am, but I think I’m pretty close,” Beniers said. “I think just keep working hard, and I’ll be there soon enough.”
On one hand, Beniers showed what he could do by scoring 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists) in 24 games as a freshman at Michigan last season, while helping the United States to gold at the IIHF World Junior Championship and playing against men at the IIHF World Championship.
The Kraken offer immediate opportunity as an expansion team.
On the other, Beniers won’t turn 19 until Nov. 5. He’s 6-foot-1, 174 pounds, and needs to get bigger and stronger. Pearson said he could become more explosive in his skating and continue to improve on face-offs.
Pearson pointed to forward Cole Caufield, who returned to the University of Wisconsin as a sophomore, won the Hobey Baker Award and ended up starring for the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“He’s got to come back and be the best player not only in our league but try to be the best player in college hockey, try to become an All-American,” Pearson said. “There’s room for growth there. He’s a really good player now. He’s not far off from playing in the National Hockey League, but you want to dominate at the level you’re at before you try to slide into the best league in the world.”
Beniers could play on a stacked team too. Michigan became the first team to have five players/recruits selected in the first round, and four went in the top five. Defenseman Owen Power went No. 1 to the Buffalo Sabres, defenseman Luke Hughes No. 4 to the New Jersey Devils, center Kent Johnson No. 5 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, forward Mackie Samoskevich No. 24 to the Florida Panthers.
“I want to try to make a run at the national championship, obviously,” Beniers said.
In the end, what matters most is what’s best for Beniers’ long-term development. He needs to be a building block for the Kraken for years to come.
“Every kid’s different, and I think the key is, when you go and see him play, you want to do what’s right for the kid and make sure you’re not rushing him,” Francis said. “The NHL’s a heck of a league. They’re big guys. They’re strong guys and fast guys. You want to make sure than when you bring them in, you’re giving them the opportunity to be successful.”