Matty Beniers, the Kraken’s top pick in the NHL entry draft in July, admits he had been leaning for a while toward his decision this month to return to school, which many new NHL fans are undoubtedly scratching their heads over.
Top picks in other major professional leagues rarely forgo signing contracts, so they can immediately begin making big money. But hockey is different. Rookie salaries and bonus money are not as large as those in other sports, and players returning to NCAA teams have the option to leave for the NHL as soon as the following spring.
So for Beniers, an 18-year-old center who was the second overall pick but wasn’t necessarily projected to be an instant NHL success, returning to the University of Michigan for a second season of development against older competition made sense.
He’ll try for a national championship, which the Wolverines were denied a chance to compete for last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he will take part in a full on-campus, in-classroom experience he missed out on his freshman year.
“You’re kind of starting adulthood, so, for me, I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Beniers, already moved in on-campus. “I didn’t really get a real year of college here at Michigan, because with COVID everything was shut down. So I’d love to go to class here. I’d love to experience everything that Michigan is all about as much as I can before moving on.”
Beniers isn’t the only one feeling that way, as No. 1 overall pick Owen Power and No. 5 selection Kent Johnson also decided to forgo contracts with the Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets, respectively, to return to the Wolverines. That Michigan trio alone accounts for nearly as many unsigned first-rounders as Major League Baseball had in its past six drafts combined.
Until this year, no MLB first-rounder had gone unsigned since 2018, and only three had since 2016. And the New York Mets balked at signing this year’s 10th overall selection, Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker, only because of elbow concerns.
MLB might be the closest to the NHL in terms of teenagers getting drafted and then joining NCAA teams. One huge difference is MLB teams don’t keep the rights to those players, and if they go to college they must play through their junior year before re-entering the draft.
Still, drafted ballplayers choosing NCAA careers can sometimes better their draft positions. Portland native Adley Rutschman was drafted by the Mariners in the 40th round out of high school in 2016, then went to Oregon State and became the No. 1 overall selection by the Baltimore Orioles in 2019.
Hockey is different, as NHL teams keep rights to draftees through college. About a third of NHL players spent time in the NCAA, though college career lengths vary and — for top hockey prospects — are often shorter than in baseball.
According to collegehockeyinc.com — a nonprofit organization partnered with USA Hockey to provide student-athletes and their families with career-path advice — 310 NHL players during the 2017-18 season had NCAA backgrounds. Of those, one-third played all four years of college, 38% stayed three, and 29% remained two years or fewer.
Those playing only one or two years often are top picks, their NHL teams increasingly seeing NCAA schools as short-term training grounds.
Beniers won’t say how long he’ll remain with Michigan, though it’s widely assumed this will be his final NCAA season.
“I’m honestly not sure what’s going to happen,” he said. “I think that kind of depends on my play. … I’m really just taking it one step at a time.”
Kraken general manager Ron Francis confirmed he expects Beniers will be in NHL camp next fall.
Money also plays into NHL first-rounders not always signing right away.
A No. 2 overall MLB selection has a suggested bonus slot value of just under $7.8 million. In the NFL, No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson of the New York Jets agreed to a rookie NFL contract with a $23.5 million signing bonus. The NBA doesn’t use signing bonuses much, but No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green signed with the Houston Rockets for a $9 million guaranteed salary his initial year.
But in hockey, Beniers, even at No. 2 overall, can still earn only up to $925,000 annually as part of a three-year, entry-level contract. In addition, he’d be eligible for a signing bonus right away, but only up to 10% of salary — so $92,500.
Players on entry deals can also earn up to four “Schedule A” performance bonuses a season capped at $850,000 total for reaching various statistical milestones. The game’s potential superstar young players — which Beniers is not expected to be right away — can also make up to $2 million in “Schedule B” bonuses for securing top league performance awards.
It’s all a fraction of what other men’s leagues offer.
Another wrinkle is entry-level deals must be two-way, meaning a player earns the $925,000 maximum only in the NHL and much less in the American Hockey League. Minor-league salaries are capped at $70,000 regardless of draft position.
So a top pick not guaranteed an NHL job might find an Ivy League hockey scholarship just as financially valuable as starting his pro career.
Some high draft picks sign immediately so they can start their three-year deals and then graduate to bigger money through restricted free agency. Also, some fortunate NCAA players can “burn” an initial contract year by signing in springtime — once their college teams are done — and play the final few weeks of the NHL regular season.
Those few weeks count as Year 1 of the three entry-level seasons.
Whether the Kraken wants Beniers playing next spring and burning a year depends largely on his NCAA play and team needs. Beniers is looking forward to seeing how his play evolves.
“I don’t think it hurts anyone going back another year,” he said. “You get a little bit more confidence, more experience. You get bigger and stronger, and then when you’re ready you can go to the NHL and make a smoother transition than you would right away. At least, for me.”
The Kraken signed defenseman Gustav Olofsson to a one-year, two-way contract ($750,000 average annual value).