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Matthew Beniers: A Quick-Rising Forward With Strong Defensive Skills

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Beniers is a forward from Michigan who has shot up some draft rankings in 2021. But perhaps he should have been at the top the whole time.

United States v Finland: Semifinals - 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship
Beniers won gold with Team USA in 2021.
Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

Hughes, Clarke, or Power - it would seem, given the state of the team’s organizational depth, that the New Jersey Devils would want to get one of the top three defensemen in the 2021 NHL Draft. Since 2015, the Devils have selected in the top ten four times. All four of those picks have been used on forwards: Pavel Zacha, Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, and Alexander Holtz. It would seem the Devils have laid the foundation for the future of their forwards group, and would probably like to shift focus to the back-end, which has languished in the past decade.

However, what if the best pick available is not one of those three, even if any of them are still on the board when the Devils select at number four? Some prospect writers have Michigan center Matthew Beniers ranked as high as number one. Let us take a look:

Who is Matthew Beniers?

Beniers is 6’1” and listed at 176 pounds. As one of the older players in the draft, born November 5, 2002 in Massachussetts, Beniers has a full collegiate season under his belt. For this reason, I imagine teams might view Beniers as someone closer to being NHL-ready. His game translated well from the United States National Development Program to college, and he has earned lofty comparisons on his two-way game.

Elite Prospects

What I notice from a glance at Beniers’ history is he’s been pretty consistent across the levels. He doesn’t seem to have too many jumps in production, except for 2018-19, in which he nearly matched his 42 games of U17 production for the United States Development Program in just 20 games of U18 play. It seems rather peculiar, but there is a good reason for his jump in points there.

Where is Beniers Ranked?

Beniers has been ranked rather highly for the Draft. Unless Seattle takes him, I think he will be around when the Devils are on the clock. However, some writers seem to think there is a chance he ends up one of the top three picks.

What Others Have Said About Beniers

You can never have too many centers, I guess, but there may be some positional friction for the Devils with Beniers. From Bob McKenzie, at TSN, in his midseason report:

Beniers plays a strong 200-foot, two-way game with a big engine that consistently revs high. Beniers has a sneaky above-average skill level as well. As a late 2002 birthdate, like Power, he is not eligible for the U-18 world championship but Beniers excelled for Team USA at the 2021 World Juniors. Beniers is viewed by NHL scouts as the only legitimate projected NHL centre in our top 15 rankings. Other Top 15 prospects on the TSN list may play centre now, but the consensus view of the scouts is that only Beniers will play that position in the NHL.

However, it seems that Beniers has some experience playing at wing rather than center - especially when surrounded with older and higher-end talent. Back in November 2020, Cam Robinson noted this for Dobber Prospects about Beniers, as he also cast some doubt on the perception of Beniers as a surprise riser:

The 18-year-old American has been on the radar for years. As a 16-year-old, he was skating alongside Jack Hughes and Oliver Wahlstrom on the U18 USNTDP’s top line.

This seems to explain why, in 2018-19, Matthew Beniers scored just three fewer points for the USDP in U18 than U17 while playing 23 fewer games at the higher age level. This also provides a connection for Beniers to the present Devils roster. Beniers could end up a very good third line center (even though Dawson Mercer could also end up being that), or he could end up on Jack Hughes’ wing yet again in his career. However, what type of player would he be?

Steve Kourianos, who argued Beniers’ rise in many draft rankings came after his performance at World Juniors in 2021, had this to say about that:

Beniers gets it, simple as that. It’s easy to label a kid a having a low ceiling because he excels on the defensive side, but Beniers doesn’t need to be coached all that much. He simply knows when to pick his spots rather than keep the spotlight on him while ignoring his linemates. Beniers is very mature for his age...Naturally, you cannot excel as a two-way forward without making consistent reads, anticipating gaps, or juggling multiple options in a second or two. Therefore, Beniers’ decision making should never be questioned for strategic approach he brings every shift...Beniers’ skill set is very similar to what we saw from Jonathan Toews in his 2005-06 draft year.

In terms of statistical comparison, Beniers had 24 points in 24 games for Michigan in 2021. In 2005-06, Jonathan Toews had 22 goals and 17 assists in 42 games for the University of North Dakota. Beniers had one goal and two assists in seven World Juniors games, while Toews had two assists in six games.

Beniers could also be a good fit for the Devils’ forward group, as he would be able to keep up with the high-end skating we have seen from the likes of Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and Yegor Sharangovich. Here’s what Ben Kerr from Last Word on Hockey has to say about his skating:

His agility and edgework are outstanding. Beniers is able to beat defenders off the rush, both with his speed to take the defender wide as well as his ability to quickly change speeds and directions to fool the defender. He is also strong has a strong lower body, giving him excellent balance and making him tough to knock off the puck.

As for his offensive focus - would he give the team another needed scorer, or would he be yet another playmaker? Well, Ben Kerr continues about his offensive game:

Beniers is an outstanding playmaker. He controls the puck with his soft hands and excellent stick control. Beniers can slow the play down or speed it up in order to create openings in the defence. His slick hands can create passing lanes. Beniers has the vision and passing skill to take advantage of it. He can control the puck in the neutral zone, creating effective zone entries as well as generating offence in the transition game.

While Kerr, like others, describes Beniers as “more of a passer than a shooter,” Kerr does not knock his goal scoring ability. Kerr also references his forechecking ability as creating chances for his team. On that, Nick Richard at Dobber Prospects said this in February:

Working hard is a skill and Beniers is elite in that regard with a motor that is always running high. He takes intelligent routes in puck pursuit and has the tenacity to be disruptive on the forecheck while also understanding when to back off and take a more conservative approach.

It is extremely difficult to find anyone who proposes a downside to picking Matthew Beniers. In some ways, he is portrayed as one of, if not the safest pick in the Draft. His defensive ability is praised as well as offensive ability, and he has the skating ability and hockey IQ to be projected as a top center by some writers. But is that expectation earned?

Evaluating Beniers’ Draft Season

10 goals, 14 assists in 24 games. That does not exactly seem like the type of player who won’t be known as a goal scorer, especially for an 18 year old at the collegiate level. As it turns out, Matthew Beniers did not ride the bus at Michigan. He did not feed off of the talent around him - as only one player, Thomas Bordeleau, had more expected primary assists than Beniers. From Mitch Brown, here’s Michigan’s expected primary points. Matthew Beniers has nearly 0.8 expected primary assists and about 1.1 expected goals per 60 minutes. Replicating that and making good of those chances at the NHL level would likely put him near the top of the team in even strength point production.

Beniers was a top play driver on an extremely good Michigan team.
Mitch Brown

However, Beniers is not just praised for his offensive ability - some compare him to Jonathan Toews in terms of how they performed in their respective draft years. Well, taking a look at Mitch Brown’s tracking for transition efficiency, Matthew Beniers not only stands out from his team, but the rest of the NCAA.

Best transition player at Michigan? No, best in the NCAA.
Mitch Brown

Beniers, true to his reputation as having an extremely high hockey IQ, is able to protect the puck with great efficacy in transition with the best relative turnover rate by a wide margin. Beniers can be trusted to not only make defensive plays in the back-end, as he also grades well relative to the rest of the NCAA in Brown’s tracking of that, but he can also be trusted to carry or pass the puck up the ice safely and effectively.

A Little Video

What is a prospect evaluation without seeing it for yourself, though? Many writers cite his performance at World Juniors as his break-out moment as a prospect. And he worked some magic there:

One of the clips that caught my eye was his defensive zone play at 0:32. He skates a lot with the puck after making a play in front of the net. I think it would be a bit too dangerous at the NHL-level, though. He makes a pretty play at 2:15, though Devils fans might pull their hair out seeing him pass up a shot to make a tight pass there. But if it works, it works. He shows Blake Coleman-esque penalty kill philosophy right after at 2:54 and some strong PK defense ability at 4:17, and makes a strong even strength forechecking play in the following clip.

Here’s a highlight clip from the Prospect Film Room. This one has a mix of USNTDP, WJC, and NCAA play:

At 5:05, he shows a strong ability to take the puck with force, fight off a backcheck, and rip off a hard shot. At 2:28, Beniers controls the breakout on the power play and runs it to effectiveness, as well as showing good goal line passing and screen-setting. He shows strong passing from the goal line at 6:05 as well as a great sense for the net during the cycle at 3:05. Beniers kind of reminds me of Nico Hischier with the way he plays in the offensive zone, being active off the puck rather than try to force everything through himself.

Last but not least, here’s a shift-by-shift video from his time at Michigan:

In this video, you can also get a good look at Owen Power, who seemed pretty active offensively. But Beniers shows off his playmaking with two assists, including a pretty cross-crease pass on the power play. I also noticed Beniers make some defensive plays, and I was happy to see Beniers try to be at the center of the action when Notre Dame had the puck. This was also visible on the penalty kill at 15:30, as he actively sought to deny passing lanes.

My Opinion on Beniers

Admittedly, I came into the draft season thinking the Devils should be hoping that their top defensive name ends up in their laps at four. However, I cannot deny that Beniers is a very intriguing prospect. There are not really any knocks on his game, and he could project as a 50-70 point player at the NHL level given his freshman college production and apparent 200-foot knack.

It is tempting, when picking as high as the Devils are, to flock to the flashiest player. Matthew Beniers might remind Devils fans of Nico Hischier - and he reminds prospect writers of players like Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews. I am still hesitant to label him like that because of the difference in NHL and collegiate speed. On the other hand, I look at his shift-by-shift tape and see a player who tries to see things before they happen on defense, and a player who sometimes just tries to snuff out puck possession for the opposition when possible. The Devils can use players like that.

Beniers has the perfect combination going to be a great NHL player, with his hockey sense, motor, and skill. While the Devils might be looking for a defenseman come hell or high water on July 23, I would not be upset if they picked Beniers. A silver lining to picking him when the expectation has been a defenseman is Beniers’ defensive reputation. Without Travis Zajac, the Devils do need their defensive forward of the future. Beniers might be a little more defensively-focused than Nico Hischier, and he might end up handling a bulk of penalty killing minutes in the NHL. My struggle here is - especially the team’s top defensive prospect is off the board - Beniers will certainly be good elsewhere. He seems, in all honesty, like an absolute surefire pick. He tracks extremely well among NCAA players despite being only 18, and I think he will be given a chance to play in the NHL in 2021. If Tom Fitzgerald believes Beniers is the best pick available at four, it is simply his job to make the appropriate moves to build the back-end through means alternative to his top pick in the draft. Dougie Hamilton may be a free agent, after all.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of Matthew Beniers? Do you think he will go top three, or do you think the Devils will have the chance to pick him? If he’s there, do you think the Devils should pick him? What do you make of his video, especially his shift-by-shift performance? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.