Matty Beniers was expecting things to be a little different this time around.
A year ago, he was a part of Team USA’s World Juniors team as the United States won the championship. He finished with a goal and two assists. It was played without spectators.
When he arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, to quarantine before this year’s tournament, the plan was to go back to a full house. The newest wave of COVID-19 had other ideas, and the tournament will start with 50% capacity.
That doesn’t mean the mission has changed; it’s just another chapter in a hockey career that, for Beniers, has continued to center on COVID.
“I think now we as a group of us, we know what it takes to win,” he said. “There’s been a taste of it, so I think we’re just going to kind of use what we liked last year and what we thought we do well and try to implement that into this team.
“Obviously, we have a different group, a different group of guys. So we’re obviously not going to be the exact same team as last year, but we’re going to try to do a bunch of stuff we liked from last year and probably have a similar, like core values.”
Beniers was the Kraken’s first NHL entry draft pick, selected second overall in July. He opted to return to Michigan for his sophomore season, and called being able to represent the U.S. again in this tournament a “perk.”
He said he wants to win a national championship with the Wolverines and will think about his NHL future after that.
That he has an NHL future is a product of his hard work, his first high-school coach said, even though he’s always had the tools to become a star.
“The first week that he stepped on the ice with us to practice as a 14-year-old, there were 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds on the ice,” Milton Academy coach Paul Cannata said. “And it was something that it’s hard to describe that when you see the way he uses his hands, his feet and his mind, all working together at a very high rate.
“He clearly set himself apart even though his physical frame wasn’t big. The most players get one or two out of those three attributes, even at the National Hockey League level. You know, very few players have great feet, great hands, great mind — all of those attributes.”
Ninth grade is young, but it’s when college and junior radars start going off for recruiting. A strong freshman season sent Beniers to the USHL and the USA National Development Program.
He was supposed to stay close to home and attend Harvard, but like everything else in his young career, COVID changed those plans. The Ivy League didn’t play in 2020, so he transferred to Michigan.
That set the table for a super team. Michigan is ranked third in the country and is a national-championship favorite.
Beniers is no small part of that; he was named an alternate captain for Team USA and has taken on a leadership role at just 19.
“This year I’m still gonna be a player and I’m playing defense and offense, but you know, hopefully I’ll be putting a couple more goals in the back of it and some more parts,” he said. “So that’s kind of my theme for this year. And I think also being an older guy, you know, maybe taking on more of a leadership role this year and helping some of the younger guys.”
These World Juniors mean something different to Beniers. He’s been there before and knows what it’s like to win. He’s one of five players who were a part of last year’s team to compete, pre-vaccine availability and still early in the story of how COVID affected sports.
He, like everyone else, had hoped this time around would be more normal.
“It’s been good getting some practices and kind of finalizing knowing who you’re going to be playing with,” he said before the tournament. “Or like who your teammates are. But that process has been pretty fun. And I think now it’s getting a little bit more real. And so I think everyone’s kind of like antsy to get out. Especially get outside of the hotel rooms and get going.”
Beniers, who had an assist on the first goal in their scrimmage loss Thursday to Finland, spent time watching his future team Dec. 1 when the Kraken were in Detroit. He sat with general manager Ron Francis and watched the team go to its first shootout, which it lost.
“I watch (Kraken games) usually with my roommates, not every day,” he said. “I’m not the kind of person to sit down and watch every game. … (In Detroit) it was cool to see the jerseys and get a feel for the team and coaching staff. That is obviously hopefully where I’ll be soon, so it was good to get a comfort level face to face.”
Being a top draft pick comes with expectations regardless of the team, but being the first pick for the Kraken in its first season carries a different weight.
Not only is Beniers the Kraken’s top prospect, he’s their first elite prospect and, in many eyes, the future of the franchise.
Despite that apparent pressure, being drafted actually has been alleviating. He doesn’t have to perform for scouts as much.
For a player whose entire prospect arc has come during the pandemic, knowing anything with certainty goes a long way.
“I think it probably takes a little bit of weight off your shoulders when the scouts aren’t there watching you. They’re mostly watching other guys,” Beniers said. “So I think maybe a little bit of weight, but I think in this kind of scenario, you’re not really thinking too much about it at all.
“Even last year. I think everyone’s really focused on the team and what the team needs and wants, and everyone had focused on winning that gold medal. I think that’s the kind of environment that this tournament creates. These are so tough to win, that everyone kind of flips upside their individual effort, like individual accolades, and really just goes for it for the team.”
That team-first mentality is common in hockey, but Cannata saw it during Beniers’ first year of high school. It’s another attribute that makes Beniers stand out.
“One of our assistant coaches, early on that season, he said, ‘We’re gonna be paying money to watch him play someday,’ ” Cannata said. “Those little subtle plays, it wasn’t like he scored five goals. It would be more a solid player practice we’re able to say like, ‘How did he know that guy was there?’ It’s on and off his stick so quick. Really sets himself apart from, you know, even good players.”