For many developing hockey players, the last 16 months have been a struggle. Games were canceled, rinks were closed, and growth opportunities were lost. The most dedicated of players adapted and now hockey life everywhere is approaching normalcy. But there’s a gap there.
So it comes as little surprise to hear both Owen Power and Matty Beniers, who could be the top two picks of the upcoming NHL Draft (July 23-24), say that they might head back to school (Michigan) rather than enter the league. It would be rare.
Technically, the last No. 1 overall pick who didn’t immediately join his new NHL club was Nail Yakupov, but he debuted as an Oiler immediately after the 2012 lockout ended. Before that, there was Erik Johnson (2006), who played his freshman year at Minnesota before signing with the Blues. Chris Phillips (1996), Bryan Berard (1995), Ed Jovanovski (1994) all returned to juniors for a season. Eric Lindros (1991) refused to play for Nordiques ownership, demanded a trade, and wound up a Flyer.
Beniers, a two-way center from Hingham, wouldn’t bring the Sabres, who pick first, or the Kraken (second) that kind of drama. He would happily join them or whomever else takes him. But maybe after a good season of college hockey, which the pandemic all but stole.
“I’m definitely leaning toward coming back,” Beniers said on a Zoom call recently. “We’re going to have a real run at a national title, I think.”
No doubt. In addition to Power and Beniers, forward Kent Johnson is ranked near the top of online mock drafts. Dan Marr, head of NHL Central Scouting, said three of the top prospects playing for the same college team is a “once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.” Possibly joining them in Ann Arbor this fall: incoming freshman Luke Hughes, a defenseman. The Devils, who pick fourth, behind the Ducks, have their eyes on Jack Hughes’s little brother.
Power, a 6-foot-5-inch blue liner with high-end mobility, ranked as the top North American skater by NHL Central Scouting and Canadian outlets Sportsnet and TSN. He said he wants to “actually [go] to class and not do it online. Just being able to do stuff other than go to the rink and home.”
Beniers, who turns 19 in November, agreed. He was committed to Harvard before the pandemic forced Ivy schools in the ECAC to cancel their seasons. Choosing between pre-med and public health at Michigan, he finished his freshman year with a 3.86 GPA. He sees the value in richer experience, rather than narrow focus.
Beniers is the son of a former Cornell football wide receiver (Bob, a technical sales engineer) and a Broadway actress-turned-lawyer (Christine). Matty grew up playing a range of sports and working at the Quincy store (Beacon Sporting Goods) run by his grandfather, Bob,
Christine said in a phone call that Matty was “forced to do all things artistic and musical.” He and older siblings Gianna, 24, and Bobby, 22, had a week of theater camp every summer, played instruments, and sang together in choirs.
“When I was little, I was like, ‘Oh my God, no way, I’m not doing that,’ ” Matty said. “Now that I’m older, I appreciate everything. I can play the saxophone now. I can do some singing and dancing.”
His mom said he also knows the piano, violin, and clarinet, having trained through Hingham Public Schools, South Shore Conservatory, and the Milton Academy jazz band. His main instrument these days is a Bauer, but he still shows off his vocal range during the family Christmas caroling party.
“I think at this point he’s probably a baritone,” Christine said, “but he’s got a pretty nifty falsetto as well.”
Beniers, who trains at Edge Performance Systems in Foxborough, was a point-a-game freshman at Michigan (10-14—24) who tried to touch every area of the rink. Scouts who have watched him praise his edge work, three-zone details, and dynamic puck transporting.
“A natural center with an elite defensive profile, unmatched transition value, and enough offense to comfortably project to the top six,” wrote Elite Prospects, which ranks him No. 1 overall.
Unsurprisingly, Beniers looks up to Patrice Bergeron.
Former US National Team Development Program coach Seth Appert recalled showing a 16-year-old Beniers video clips of Bergeron, Pavel Datsyuk, Auston Matthews, and other superstars winning puck battles, backchecking, and grinding out shifts. Some high-skill players that age may take five or six months to understand the importance of puck management and apply their knowledge.
“With Matty, it was one meeting, 10 minutes of NHL video clips,” Appert, now coach of Buffalo’s AHL club in Rochester, N.Y., said over the phone. “ ‘OK, that’s all? I’ll go do that every shift.’ ”
Because he has always been one of the youngest, smallest players in his age group, processing power has been a necessary attribute. When Beniers — now listed at 6-1 and 174 pounds — was a 5-9, 138-pound ninth-grader at Milton Academy, he forced coach Paul Cannata to adjust his expectations.
“His speed of hands, speed of mind, speed of feet, all working in synch, was something a little different than the other good players in this area,” said Cannata, when reached by phone. “With that said, if you told me then that this kid could be picked first in the draft, I didn’t see that. The development has been impressive.”
Impressive enough to earn him an invite to the World Championship in Riga, Latvia, where he produced a goal and an assist in six games for the bronze-medalist Yanks before leaving with a sprained ankle (no lingering issues, he said). But there’s no guarantee he’ll be playing against men next season. While Beniers will go where the road leads, he’s not mashing the pedal.
Kampfer taking talents to Russia
Former Bruins defenseman Steven Kampfer, a Michigan man, was happy to chat about his alma mater’s wealth of talent. But he’s got more on his mind, such as Kazan, Russia, where he’ll continue his career.
“I’m 32,” said Kampfer, reached while vacationing with his wife, Tara, and 2-year-old son, Teddy, in Lake Chelan, Wash. “I’ve been in the [No.] 7-8 role for six, seven years now. I would love to play in the NHL. I would love to play every night there. But you have to look at it realistically. There are a lot of young kids coming who are very good, who organizations want to play.”
Ak Bars Kazan wanted him. Kampfer, who made $800,000 in the NHL last season, said he’s getting paid more by the KHL club on his one-year deal, with healthy performance bonuses.
Playing 20-22 minutes a night for a short stint this past season, in relief of injured Matt Grzelcyk and Charlie McAvoy, “was probably the most fun I’ve had in a while,” Kampfer said. Ak Bars, coached by ex-Bruins winger Dmitri Kvartalnov, could give him the chance he wants.
Those with long memories recall Kvartalnov, drafted 16th overall in 1992 after the Iron Curtain fell, as the first Russian to make an impact in Black and Gold. He scored 30 goals as a 26-year-old rookie but vanished after spending some of his second season in Providence. Subsequent stops took him to Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Finland, and home to Russia, where he’s been playing and coaching the last 20 years.
Kampfer, who speaks no Russian and has never visited the country, expects his surgically repaired wrist will be ready for the season opener Sept. 2. He’ll be able to lean on fellow ex-Bruin Par Lindholm, who signed with Ak Bars after finishing the season in the Swedish league (Skelleftea). By chance, Kampfer’s workout partners in South Florida, where he resides, include brothers Andrei and Evgeny Svechnikov, both Kazan products who have been offering cultural tips (try the caviar).
Kampfer had nothing but glowing reviews of his second Bruins tour of duty (he was a Black Ace on the 2011 Stanley Cup team), which ended in a year full of nasal swabs, a six-day COVID-19 layoff after a breakout of the virus in Buffalo, and a compacted schedule. Kampfer, who opted out of the 2020 playoffs because his wife and son share a congenital heart defect, estimated most of his teammates got vaccinated, less “maybe 10” players and staff.
“I remember when we got the first shot, and we had practice the next day,” Kampfer said. “I’ve never seen a group of guys so lethargic.”
Best available likely for Bruins
When the Bruins make their first-round pick (officially No. 21, since Arizona forfeited No. 11 for NHL combine violations, but No. 20 in practice), they will likely be looking at BPA — best player available. The players in that range are a season or two away, at least. This draft, perhaps more so than most, will be an exercise in blindfolded darts.
Possible options for the Bruins, according to prospect rankings, could include Swedish right winger Simon Robertsson, who played with ex-Bruin Par Lindholm in Sweden this past season. Corson Ceulemans, a right-shot defenseman from Regina, Saskatchewan, who will head to Wisconsin, follows the Bruins’ trend of NCAA draft picks. Same goes for center Mackie Samoskevich (Newtown, Conn.), who will jump from USHL Chicago to that loaded Michigan squad. Two-way center Francesco Pinelli, a Toronto product who played in Slovenia this past season, could be enticing at that range, considering the Bruins’ ongoing need for Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci replacements. Do the Bruins have it in them to gamble on onetime Finnish phenom Aatu Raty, who has had a quiet couple of years after earning early projections as the No. 1 pick?
Cup winner Kucherov has no filter
Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Conn Smythe Trophy after the Lightning clinched Game 5 of the Cup Final, but Nikita Kucherov was MVP of the postgame news conference.
Shirtless and swearing, he chugged a beer on the dais, clapped his hands, and went to work.
Kucherov on Vasilevskiy: “I was telling him every day, Vasy, you’re MVP. You’re the best player. And they gave it to whatever the guy in Vegas, the Vezina. And then last year they gave Vezina to somebody else. That’s some No. 1, [expletive]. No. 1, [expletive]. Vasy took both Cups . . . If he played in a different market, he would win the Vezina every year.”
Kucherov also earned a shower of boos in the Bell Centre for the rest of his career with this gem: “The fans in Montreal acted like they won the Stanley Cup last game. Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? Their Final was last [round].”
Seeing Kucherov, one of the surlier interview subjects you’ll find (ask Tampa beat writers), popping off after a few Bud Lights was fine by me. The sport needs more villains and wildmen, not fewer.
If that’s it for the Zoom Era — and please make it be so — what an ending.
Rebuild not popular in Nashville
It looks like teardown time in Nashville, and Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen don’t seem too happy about it.
Forsberg posted a gigantic thumbs-down emoji on Instagram after the club traded linemate Viktor Arvidsson to Los Angeles, and replied to Arvidsson’s subsequent goodbye by saying he was “not liking this post. Love you brother.” Their “JOFA Line” cohort, Johansen, posted a similar sentiment: “Well this turned into an awful day pretty quick. Not really sure what else to say . . . ”
Since making the Cup Final against Pittsburgh in 2017, the Predators have won a single playoff round, and were bounced in the first round by Carolina this past season under coach John Hynes. They’ve tried with this core, and it’s not working.
Moving Johansen’s money (four years left at $8 million per) would be a challenge for GM David Poile, as would that of Matt Duchene (five times $8 million), but Forsberg’s expiring deal, at $6 million, could bring back a significant sum of futures in this flat-cap environment. The soon-to-be 27-year-old winger has underachieved a bit in recent years (12-20—32 in 39 games this past season), but at his best he is the type of dynamic top-liner Poile should be building around. But he may be tempted.
Poile also has to determine whether UFA Mikael Granlund is worth a long-term commitment, and RFA netminder Juuse Saros (who nearly dragged the Predators to the playoffs) should get the same with 2020 first-rounder Yaroslav Askarov in the pipeline. Oh, and franchise legend Pekka Rinne, 38, hasn’t said if he’s coming back.
Nothing new on the sexual abuse allegations levied against the Blackhawks. “Hockey Night in Canada” host Ron MacLean opened eyes by choosing to ignore the topic in his annual Cup Final interview with Gary Bettman. MacLean, who has gone toe-to-toe with the commissioner in previous installments, said he avoided the topic because he didn’t feel Bettman would offer any fresh insights. MacLean messed up by not pushing the commissioner in that setting, between periods of Game 4, in front of millions of TV viewers . . . Steven Kampfer, who had a couple stints in Providence the last few years, said new Seattle assistant Jay Leach will fit well with the analytically minded Kraken. “One of the most prepared coaches I’ve ever played for in terms of breaking down stuff or preparing for other teams,” Kampfer said. “He gets to know the players personally, away from the rink. He knows when to push the buttons and when to lay off.” . . . As summer trade rumors go, Duncan Keith to Edmonton is a funny one. It makes a lot of sense for the player; Keith, 38 next week, reportedly wants to be closer to his child, who lives in Southern British Columbia. A good soldier and major piece of Chicago’s three Stanley Cup runs (with Conn Smythe and Norris Trophies to boot), Keith deserves to end his career where he wants. But the Oilers need to surround Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl with better players, not rings in the room. Particularly when the Cup rings come at $5.54 million for each of the next two years . . . The US women’s team, in preparation for Beijing 2022, announced its group that will train in Blaine, Minn. Alex Carpenter (North Reading), Caroline Harvey (Salem, N.H.), and Kali Flanagan (Hudson, N.H.) are the New England products, with Boston College (four alums) leading area schools. One surprising snub: Northeastern netminder Aerin Frankel, the reigning Patty Kazmaier Award winner (NCAA player of the year) . . . The NWHL is holding a virtual town hall for prospective players at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, and another session July 28. Registration is at NWHL.zone/2021-town-hall . . . No pressure, Toronto, but you have nine years before you are erased from the Stanley Cup. The Hockey Hall of Fame, which in 1993 began the practice of removing bands from the trophy every decade or so rather than stacking on new ones, will in 2030 trim the band including the 1967 Maple Leafs and display it behind glass on Yonge Street in Toronto. That band also features the Cup winners from 1966 to 1978, meaning the two Big Bad Bruins teams will come off (2011 will remain for several decades). The last removal (1954-1965) came in 2018. The only other Original Six team in danger of erasure is Montreal, whose last Cup win came in 1993.