Kraken general manager Ron Francis was known throughout his Hall of Fame career for his unrelenting center play at both ends of the ice.
And Friday night, he selected arguably the best eligible, two-way amateur center on the planet in Matthew Beniers, 18, with the No. 2 overall pick in the NHL entry draft. Beniers, a 6-foot-1, 175-pounder from Hingham, Massachusetts — who prefers to go by “Matty” and whose last name is pronounced “Beh-neers” — ranked third in scoring with 24 points on the powerhouse University of Michigan squad his recently completed, pandemic-shortened, freshman season.
He also played for gold-medal-winning Team USA at the IIHF World Junior Championship in January and again against NHL players at the IIHF World Championship in May. And Beniers and Francis share more than just an affinity for preventing goals with defensive play as much as generating them offensively.
“I guess I kind of represented the way he played,” Beniers said in a conference call after the selection. “But it was pretty funny looking him up, because after he got the GM job I was watching some videos, and I saw that he wore No. 10, too, so that’s kind of hilarious. We kind of play that similar style. He wore No. 10, and I’ve worn No. 10 mostly my whole life, so that was pretty cool.”
The strong-skating playmaker is considered close to NHL-ready, though he has thought about returning to Michigan. The Wolverines were denied entry to the NCAA tournament due to positive COVID-19 tests within the program.
“Honestly, I don’t really know what the best thing is for me next year, whether it’s going back or going to play for the Kraken,” Beniers said. “Obviously, I think it would be really exciting to go play for the Kraken, but I think going back for a year I could keep building the confidence.
“I think not having a real year last year, not a full schedule, kind of getting kicked out of the national championship — those are things where I want to have a really good year, and I want to make a run at the national championship,” he added. “Obviously, if it’s not the best decision for my development, then so be it. But I think those are some of the perks that, some of them I kind of want to do.”
Francis quipped that he wishes he’d had the same speed as Beniers, who he feels showed at the world tournament he can compete against older pros before being sidelined because of an ankle sprain.
“He seemed like he could play in all those situations and a lot of those were against older, stronger, more powerful individuals,” Francis said. “And the fact that he can hold his own bodes well for him moving forward.”
The Kraken retains draft rights to Beniers for the duration of his NCAA career, so returning to school poses no risk for the team on that front.
Though the Kraken stunned a few prognosticators with some of its picks in Wednesday’s NHL expansion draft, this time around the team took the player most figured it would go with — especially after the Buffalo Sabres took Beniers’ Michigan teammate and the consensus No. 1 overall choice, defenseman Owen Power.
The stacked Michigan team had three players drafted in the top five — an NCAA school had never before had three in the top 10 — in Power, Beniers and linemate Kent Johnson, who switched from center to left wing to accommodate Beniers when playing alongside him. Johnson completed the top-five trifecta when selected at No. 5 by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The final six rounds start at 8 a.m. Saturday, with the Kraken having the third-highest pick in each.
The NHL draft typically falls somewhere between the NFL and MLB when it comes to the time it takes for draft prospects to begin their major pro careers. Francis said he gets the feeling all three Michigan prospects want to return to school primarily to compete for the championship they missed out.
“We’ll have that discussion with Matty and then make the decision we feel is best for him,” Francis said.
Though top NHL picks sometimes jump to the big club right away, or within a year or so, it often takes two, three or four seasons for the mostly 18-year-old prospects to make the leap. This past year offered additional complications in the hockey process as a number of top prospects had their playing time limited by the pandemic.
The Kraken came out of Wednesday’s expansion draft clearly short on premium centers — Yanni Gourde was a third-liner with the Tampa Bay Lightning but currently projects for the top line — so Francis knowing he has one coming should ease his mind somewhat.
Among available free-agent centers, Phillip Danault, 28, of the Montreal Canadiens is one of the best out there and is known for his defensive game as well. He could serve as a mentor for Beniers once he does arrive. Francis expects to be active in free agency.
As for Beniers, he’s widely considered to have the highest NHL “floor” of forwards available in the draft — though some felt he had a more limited talent “ceiling” than others such as Johnson or Swedish prospect William Eklund, taken at No. 7 by San Jose. But Beniers also projects as a true NHL center — the most valued commodity on a forward line — and Eklund is a winger, and many expect Johnson will wind up there as well.
The Anaheim Ducks took another center at No. 3, 6-1, 207-pound Mason McTavish, formerly of the Peterborough Petes but who played in the Swiss League this past year when the Ontario Hockey League shut down. But Kraken amateur scouting director Robert Kron said one thing in particular separated Beniers from the position’s other top prospects.
“I think what tipped the scales into his favor is his unbelievable enthusiasm and work ethic,” Kron said. “He’s got a never-quit attitude. His energy level’s very high either early on in the shift or late in the shift.”
Kron added, “He’s already at a level where he’s playing such a mature game, and we still think there’s more to come.”