DURHAM, N.H. — Johnny Beecher is not Patrice Bergeron.
He’s not David Krejci or Charlie Coyle or Sean Kuraly.
He’s a first-semester college player, which is easy to forget when you’re watching a combination of size (6 feet 3 inches, 209 pounds) that wouldn’t look out of place on an NHL roster, and skating ability that could quickly bring him to the areas of NHL ice where pros cash checks. Beecher gets to his spot in a hurry, with force and fluidity. At present, it is his defining quality. It was apparent Friday at New Hampshire on his first shift, when he laid a smack on an opposing defenseman who didn’t expect him to arrive so quickly, and on his second, when he caused a turnover behind the UNH net and set up a scoring chance.
“Big guys that can skate seem to find a way in this league,” said Jamie Langenbrunner, the Bruins’ director of player development.
Beecher, 18, is still finding his way at Michigan, his landing spot after going 30th overall to the Bruins in the draft last June. He is wearing the target that comes with being a first-round selection, and the Bruins, in case you haven’t heard, have a few veteran centers who may need to be replaced in the coming years.
Beecher is well aware of this. It’s not his concern.
“To be completely honest, it’s not something I put a whole lot of thought into,” he said, hours before the Wolverines faced the Wildcats. “Guys are getting a bit older, and the team could look totally different in a few years. I’m focused on school, and playing here, and mastering the level I’m at. That’s my focus right now.”
One of two sons of Bill, a third-generation owner of Elmira, N.Y.,’s Chapel Lumber, and Tasha, an English teacher at Elmira High, Beecher’s family roots in that town go back to the 1800s. He traces his lineage through Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and her brother Thomas Kinnicut Beecher, of whom there is a statue in town.
His hockey development took off when he began taking trips to Syracuse, a two-hour drive, to play in Pee-Wee tournaments. He wound up on a team with Boston University commit Luke Tuch, and now trains with him and his brother, Vegas forward and BC product Alex Tuch. His family adviser is Cam Stewart, who had a brief stint with the Bruins.
Dad built a backyard rink with Chapel supplies, but Johnny and older brother Bryce, a 21-year-old Elmira College student, only had to spend a few hours there in the summer, cleaning and picking up, “to teach him the value of a dollar,” Bill Beecher said. “For Johnny, we treat hockey as his job at this point.”
As for when the paychecks will come, “we don’t put a time frame on it,” Bill Beecher said. “It’ll depend on when Johnny’s ready, and the Bruins are ready. We appreciate today, work to get better, and see what tomorrow brings.”
He has aspirations of being a front-line center for the Bruins, a powerful, mobile, 200-foot forward like ex-Bruin Blake Wheeler has become for the Winnipeg Jets. When he’s camped in a teammate’s dorm watching the NHL package on Xbox a few nights a week, he’s checking out his hometown Sabres (Jack Eichel is a favorite) and Bergeron, because he is appointment viewing for any wannabe Bruin.
Much of the game, he needs to learn by doing.
“His compete level, that consistency, will also be a really big factor for him,” Langenbrunner said, naming his size and skating as the attributes that will likely make him an NHLer someday. “I think it’s something all young kids struggle with, is how hard they have to work all the time to be effective here. Guys take a long time to figure that out. He’s working toward that.”
Beecher is getting all he can handle at Michigan (4-7-2 overall, last in the Big Ten), which on Friday ended a seven-game losing streak in Durham. Beecher, cast in a support role in his two years at the US National Team Development Program, played behind No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes (Devils) and No. 5 pick Alex Turcotte (Kings). Using the Bruins’ center structure, he played a Kuraly role. As a Michigan freshman, he’s playing Bergeron minutes: a steady diet of first-line shine at even strength, power play, and penalty kill. He is the team’s leading scorer, with a 4-4—8 line in 13 games.
“He’s been thrust into that because of his skill and talent,” said coach Mel Pearson. “You forget he’s 18, especially when he’s 6-3, 210 pounds. He’s got so much to learn still, about day to day life, and adversity, and socially, how to carry yourself. Everything. It gets fast-forwarded sometimes, but he does a good job. We’ve talked to him quite a bit about his leadership role, body language on the ice, how he handles people.”
He’s earning high marks there. Pearson said he has a few letters in his office from Michigan fans who have seen Beecher, laid back and personable, go out of his way to sign autographs and chat.
But the play’s the thing, and he’s shown well on this unfamiliar stage.
He flew around the Olympic-size ice sheet at UNH’s Whittemore Center on Friday, losing steam when he sustained a minor upper body injury midway through the game. As the main net-front option, he scored a first-period goal by tipping a puck out of the air to himself, and using his reach to tap it home. He added an empty-netter in a 4-1 win. Previous goals have come from his heavy shot, including a pretty short-angle snipe against Michigan State, though the Wolverines lost their rivalry series.
“He took it really hard,” Pearson said. “He was pissed off after that weekend. He’s very much looking forward to our rematch after Christmas.”
On Friday, Beecher showed some of that fire with some after-the-whistle shoves in the second period, which earned him and a smaller Wildcat matching minors.
“I think he’s a determined kid,” Langenbrunner said. “The guys who play at the Program have a businesslike approach to them. It takes them a little longer to get out of their shell. It’s not the military, but it’s definitely more structured than high school or junior programs. I think in the next few years we’re going to see more of his personality. These kids don’t know who they are at 18, right?”