Josh Bell The Hockey Writers
2021 NHL Draft: 3 NCAA Players to Watch
While the 2020 NHL Draft hasn’t happened yet, this would normally be the time where we start to turn our attention to the following edition of the event. For the sake of normalcy, I’m going to begin the 2021 NHL Draft coverage with a seven-part series introducing some of the names you’ll want to keep an eye one when the 2020-21 hockey seasons start – whenever that may be.
Related: NCAA Hockey: 5 Standout Freshmen in 2019-20
This is the fifth edition in the series, where we’ll take a look at the NCAA, a place where we mainly see already-drafted prospects, overagers, and free agents. Some years, you might find one or two prospects that you should be keeping an eye on ahead of the draft. In 2020, that was Dylan Holloway and Yan Kuznetsov. Well, for 2021, we have three key prospects that deserve your attention.
As we begin to look towards the upcoming hockey season here are three players in the NCAA that you need to keep an eye on (alphabetically listed).
Matthew Beniers, C, Harvard University
As a 2002-born player, Matthew Beniers was going to age out of the United States Under-18 Team. So instead, he’ll be headed to Harvard University to test his luck in the NCAA. The centerman was an alternate captain on the USNTDP last season, collecting 41 points (18 goals, 23 assists) in 44 games and another 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 16 USHL games.
Beniers has been on the radar for a while now, especially after his 2018-19 season where he collected eight goals, 12 assists, and 20 points in 20 games with the under-18 team. He played with the U17 group as well, putting up 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists) in 42 games. He played in both the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and the World Under-18 Hockey Championship – as a 16-year-old.
The young player is a dynamic threat all over the rink. He’s seemingly always in the right position at both ends, has an explosive first step that leads into a strong, powerful stride, and he’s very light on his feet. He has the ability to change direction quickly, making him a four-directional threat, even when he’s on the move.
Beniers is going to be known in this draft for his two-way play. On top of reading plays in the offensive end and making plays, he does that in his own end as well and never gives up on a play. He has the ability to break up a play in his own end, whether that’s from an intercepted pass or stripping the puck, and quickly turn that into an attack the other way.
Kent Johnson, C, University of Michigan
One of my personal favourite prospect in this draft class, Kent Johnson is coming off of an incredible season in the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL), where he absolutely torched the league for 101 points (41 goals, 60 assists) in 52 games. After being named to the BCHL All-Rookie Team in 2018-19, his trophy case was extremely filled in 2019-20.
Johnson led the league in goals, assists, and points, was named to the First All-Star Team, and earned the Top Scorer Award, Most Sportsmanlike Player (14 penalty minutes), and MVP of the league. On top of this, he earned a spot on Team Canada West in the World Junior A Challenge, playing mainly with 2020 NHL Draft-eligible players, collecting a goal and an assist in four games.
So, how has he done it? In Jack Han’s book, Hockey Tactics 2020, he talks about the Holy Trinity of Offense: change of speed, change of side, and the slip pass. When you combine these three abilities, you get a creative, offensive weapon that can surprise you in multiple ways. That’s Johnson. He’s creative and more importantly, he’s unpredictable.
His offensive hockey IQ is off the charts, but the big tell for him will be how he translated to the NCAA. As an extremely defensive league with lower goals than the CHL and the CJHL, watching to see how his steps in will be interesting. Dylan Holloway looked very promising entering the league from the AJHL but had a rough transition to the NCAA which will likely hurt his draft stock. This will be an interesting storyline to watch into the 2020-21 season.
Owen Power, D, University of Michigan
The lone defender on this list might just be the best of the bunch. Owen Power is a 6-foot-5, 209-pound defender who has spent the last two seasons with the USHL’s Chicago Steel. And what seasons they were – enough for general manager Ryan Hardy to think he could go first overall.
Related: Chicago Steel Set to Make an Impact on 2020 NHL Draft
In 2018-19, the hulking d-man impressed in his rookie season, collecting 11 goals, 14 assists, and 25 points in 58 games. For his efforts, he was named to the USHL All-Rookie Second Team. This past season, he took a big step forward, collecting 12 goals, 28 assists, and 40 points – the most of any USHL defenseman. He was named to the First All-Star Team and then took home the USHL Defender of the Year Award.
Despite the big size for a 17-year-old, Power is surprisingly agile, bringing a multi-directional ability to his game. He has a long, powerful stride that allows him to lead the rush from his zone. But don’t worry, he knows how to use that big body as well, throwing it around and forcing turnovers. He’s solid in his own end through cutting down the angles on attackers and holding them to the outside.
Of course, one of his biggest strengths is in the offensive zone. His big shot has power and accuracy in it, but his bread and butter is dishing the puck out. He often shows great vision on the ice, reading plays very well and knowing how to spread out defenders with his passes and create chances for his team. It’s still early on, but Power might just be in the conversation for first overall if he continues this stellar play into the NCAA.
NCAA or Elsewhere?
One item I should mention here is that while these players have committed to these teams, they might not play in the NCAA at all. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the sporting world and the NCAA is continuing to feel that. In fact, the Ivy League – including Beniers’ Harvard University – has already announced they won’t be playing until at least Jan. 1, 2020. Will other NCAA schools follow suit?
If that’s the case, it’s very likely that these players look to play elsewhere (if they can) to ensure they are on the ice as much as possible through their draft year. For what it’s worth, here are some potentials for each player:
- Beniers: While he was drafted by the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts in 2018, if he hopes to return to the NCAA, he’ll have to opt for the USHL instead. In this past USHL Draft, the Steel selected him 152nd overall.
- Johnson: Similar to Beniers, Johnson was drafted into the WHL by the Everett Silvertips in 2017 but if he still has his sights set on the NCAA, he’ll head to the USHL. The Central Illinois Flying Aces own his rights after selecting him back in 2018.
- Power: This one’s easy, Power could just go back to the USHL’s Steel.
We’ll have to wait and see what happens with the NCAA’s season, but imagine a Steel team with both Beniers and Power? On top of that already-stacked group? That’s an extremely exciting possibility.
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