Inside the NHL

CALGARY, Alberta — Top Kraken draft pick Matty Beniers was the first to hop on the Scotiabank Saddledome ice for Tuesday’s morning skate.

He dropped down for some stretching, then leisurely skated a half lap, all the while looking around at the majestic sight of thousands of empty seats within the Calgary Flames’ decades-old home arena. On the day of his NHL debut, Beniers, 19, was making sure to take it all in.

And taking everything in is what the Kraken will need Beniers to keep doing once a game begins. Top centermen are hard to find in this league, with so many of them converted to wing positions not long after making the NHL jump from junior or college teams. Beniers got off to a good start 14 minutes into Tuesday’s debut, faking a shot and then sliding a pass across to Ryan Donato for a one-timed slap shot goal that gave the Kraken’s newest member his first NHL assist and point.

Perhaps the biggest thing Beniers had going for him prior to being selected No. 2 overall by the Kraken last summer was being roundly viewed as the most NHL-ready of all the top-10 centers available. And while others — such as his University of Michigan teammate Kent Johnson, taken No. 5 by Columbus, or No. 3 overall Anaheim Ducks selection Mason McTavish – face questions about whether they’ll stick as NHL centermen, there’s zero hesitation about Beniers.

And that’s a welcome thing for a Kraken team hard-pressed to score goals consistently. The most naturally gifted center the Kraken have is Alex Wennberg, while Yanni Gourde is arguably their most productive. Both were third-line guys for good teams in Florida and Tampa Bay.

Morgan Geekie is in the midst of his first full NHL season. Riley Sheahan has been a fourth-line guy much of his career. And even the Kraken’s scoring leader Jared McCann, who handled the center’s job well when needed this season, could project more as a winger going forward.

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So, a top center is something the Kraken need. Like a point guard in basketball, or quarterback in football, he’s the guy expected to take charge of and direct the offense by maintaining possession and distributing the puck accordingly. Which is why, as noted, the Kraken expect Beniers to take in what’s going on around him on the ice and make snap decisions to create scoring chances for himself and linemates.

“There are a lot of factors at play,” Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said Tuesday when asked about the differentiator between Beniers and other highly-drafted centermen that sometimes wind up as wingers. “The biggest is going to be Matty’s ability to process the game. He’s got a great ability to understand the game and what’s going on around him.

“His hockey sense is very good. His competitiveness is excellent. There’s going to be an adjustment for him. So, this is going to be a great opportunity here over the next month for him to make the transition and understand a little bit more about the game at this level.”

Other than goalies, center is arguably the most difficult – and valuable – position in hockey. Beyond the quarterbacking element, there’s also a defensive component of taking away the opposition’s ability to freewheel in the middle of the ice. 

Phillip Danault proved so valuable to Montreal during its Stanley Cup Finals run last spring not for the goals he scored but those prevented by shutting down opponents’ top lines. That’s why the Los Angeles Kings gave Danault a six-year, $33 million contract last summer despite his having only scored five goals last season. 

Taking faceoffs is another key element. Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins is up near an elite 58% for his career and a huge reason his team has been a perennial playoff contender the past decade. 

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That’s why the Kraken used such a high pick on Beniers. When teams feel they are getting a quality center, as opposed to more of a goal-scoring winger, there is the expectation of a multifaceted package.

Running down the list of top centers in NHL history, the names are synonymous with Stanley Cup championships. Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman, Sidney Crosby, Joe Sakic, Phil Esposito, Bryan Trottier and yes, Kraken general manager Ron Francis, all boast multiple Cup rings.

There are great centermen that have never won a Cup, including Marcel Dionne, Pat Lafontaine, Gilbert Perreault, Eric Lindros and – for now – Connor McDavid. But it’s pretty tough to win a Cup without a top-flight center in a team’s midst. 

And so, the Kraken rolled the dice with Beniers, hoping they have a future gem that can help guide the team out of the league’s basement and toward its elite ranks. Expansion teams taking centers with their very first drafts — hoping to build strong up the middle — is nothing new, though it doesn’t always work out.

The Atlanta Thrashers made Patrik Stefan their No. 1 overall pick in 1999 and he managed only 188 points over parts of seven seasons.

Also, some highly-drafted expansion team centers take years to fully develop and demonstrate their value through longevity. The Florida Panthers used a fifth overall pick on Rob Niedermayer in 1994 while the Nashville Predators used a No. 2 overall selection on David Legwand in 1998. Both were viewed as “busts” early on, but went on to play more than 1,000 NHL games apiece.

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Beniers won’t be transforming the Kraken alone and certainly not overnight. But he’s also the type of player that, if he does excel at his position, will give the Kraken the type of elite piece they currently lack. 

He spent a good part of Tuesday’s morning skate chatting alongside fellow centerman Wennberg, who broke into the NHL with Columbus in 2014-15 after playing professionally for Frolunda HC in Sweden. 

“Coming in here, this was a different league for sure,” Wennberg said Tuesday. “Obviously, the way you play back in Sweden compared to this, you have to adjust a little bit.”

But Wennberg feels Beniers “is really smart out there” and his hockey intelligence should make the transition easier. “That’s a great asset to have just to start off,” he said. “To be a smart center and read the game.”

You can’t teach smarts. A player either has them or doesn’t. Some players become smarter through studying the game, but those with natural hockey intelligence use it as second nature and devote their time to honing other elite skills.

And if Beniers can produce the skills to match his smarts, it will be one less giant thing the Kraken need on their future shopping list toward respectability.