The Michigan Hockey prospect pipeline continues to be bolstered. For those not familiar, we here at Last Word have been focusing on the 2021 Draft Class with several pieces introducing players to watch. There are three prominent 2021 prospects featured on the Michigan Wolverines hockey team. That said, of course, we watched them play against Penn State on Wednesday, December 2nd!
Breaking Down the Big Three Michigan Hockey Prospects
The Michigan Wolverines are a loaded team this year. Featuring high-end prospects like Thomas Bordeleau, Cam York, and John Beecher, among others, there are a lot of eyes on them. Michigan also features three prominent freshmen, who are entering their draft years. Those guys are Owen Power, Kent Johnson, and Matty Beniers. On December 2nd, 2020, the Wolverines faced another college hockey powerhouse, the Penn State Nittany Lions. Just this past season, the Nittany Lions won the Division I Big Ten Division. This season, though off to a very rough start, they still have firepower. Those big three freshmen were going to be tested.
Owen Power is a 6’5”, 214-pound left-shot defenseman. Heading into the game, Power had four points in six games. He would not record a point in this game, either. That does not mean he did not stand out. In the one USHL game I tracked of Power from last season, it was clear he was a strong puck mover, though not the most involved transitionally. Where he was lacking was in his defensive game, particularly against the rush.
In the Penn State game, he would continue to show that same thing. He was directly involved in 11 break-outs, just one more than the game I tracked in the USHL. He got the puck out with possession (either a pass or skating it out) on three of them. Power chipped the puck out seven times and failed once. Meanwhile, when entering the offensive zone, he was directly involved in four-zone entries. He was involved in seven entries in that one USHL game, a considerable step back, albeit in one game. Regardless, he entered the zone with possession on three of them and failed once.
In the area of his game that was the main focus, defending the rush, he struggled. The Penn State forwards attacked his half of the ice 11 different times in this game. In the USHL game, he was attacked 18 times. Power allowed six clean zone entries and two dump-ins. He broke up three entry attempts. Those numbers are pretty similar to the USHL ones, which shows some promise. Considering the NCAA is much higher competition, he has stepped up in this department, but it’s clear he still had issues.
Takeaways for Power
Power wasn’t a very big factor in this game. However, it was clear that, as the game continued, he got better and better. But again, he was not much of a factor. He only had five pass attempts in the offensive zone, a far cry from the 19(!) he had in the USHL game. He completed four of the five passes against Penn State, good for an 80% mark in passing accuracy.
Power was used late in the game to hold a one-goal lead. That shows trust from his coaches for a young and inexperienced defenseman. He was also used on the powerplay, which was seen several times in this one, which again shows how his coaches trust him early on. Unfortunately, he did not do much with the opportunities.
His difficulties against the rush were glaring in this game as well. Six times, as mentioned above, Penn State got into the zone with ease against Power. Each and every time, it was due to poor gap control. He would give the Penn State forwards a boat-load of space along the boards. While his size and reach made up for that just about every time, when he faces faster, smarter, and shiftier competition, which will be seen at the NHL level, he will get picked apart.
In the times he allowed just dump-ins, or straight-up broke the entry attempt up, it was due to a smart and timed step. If he can hone in on this aspect of his game, his reach can be weaponized with more consistency. Unfortunately, it was simply not consistent, but it was promising nonetheless.
Kent Johnson is an undersized forward, standing at 6’1” and just 165 pounds, was a guy I ranked highly based on his BCHL performance. After looking at his stats ahead of this game (eight points in six games), I was excited to see him dominate. That simply did not happen. Johnson was a complete non-factor until the third period, at best. At worst, he had a negative impact for Michigan.
Johnson was a dominant transitional player in the BCHL, especially based on the one game I tracked there. But against Penn State, that was not the case. He was involved directly in just two break-outs. He carried one out and failed to clear it on the other. Not good. He was directly involved in five entry attempts for Michigan, and he carried in four of the five, failing on the other one. It’s clear he is still effective with the puck in this area, but he wasn’t doing enough to actually get possession in the neutral zone.
Johnson had 10 pass attempts in this contest, connecting on just five. That’s a massive drop from his absurd 31 pass attempts and 28 completions in the BCHL contest I tracked. Even more glaring, eight of them were either “simple” passes or passes down-low to the corners. While he flashed with one pass to the slot and one cross-ice pass, he didn’t show that aggressive passing attack he displayed consistently at the BCHL level.
Takeaways for Johnson
There were several times where I watched Johnson carry the puck into the offensive zone and try too much with the puck, leading to turnovers. A few times, he even blew a tire and fell to the ice, with no one laying a finger on him. It was a very disappointing display, quite frankly. He definitely did not show his initial potential to be a top-five pick.
One play, in particular, was, for lack of a nicer word, embarrassing. He was on the ice for about eight seconds, and in that eight seconds, Penn State scored their only goal, bringing the game within one at a crucial time. While Johnson was absolutely not the only one to blame, his completely horrendous forecheck certainly helped assist the goal. He hopped out on the ice, took a poor angle at the opposing puck carrier at full speed, swiped his stick at the puck while curling off to the side to avoid contact, and missed. As he stopped to get back and defend, he blew a tire and took himself out of the play. Mind you, another Michigan forechecker was beaten moments earlier, so this led to a five-on-three. My Patrick Kane comparison still holds true, at least when looking at his defensive game.
The Good For Johnson
It wasn’t all doom and gloom on this front though. After watching his BCHL games, he looked completely disengaged in the defensive zone. In this contest, he showed more discipline and looked to be much more engaged. He kept his head on a swivel, covered his point man, and didn’t just float and glide out of position.
Johnson also showed promise from a potential goal-scoring perspective. In my introduction to Kent Johnson, I noted that he had the foundation to be a dangerous goal-scoring presence based on how he attacked the slot without the puck. He did that often in this game, getting to the net-front when the situation called for it. In fact, three of his four-shot attempts came from the low slot, with two shots getting on the net.
This game did bring about my concerns on whether or not the high-end playmaking he displayed at the BCHL level could translate. If more performances like this one keep popping up, Johnson’s upside may be questioned. That certainly is not good for his draft stock.
Matty Beniers is a little bit bigger than Johnson at 6’1” and 174 pounds, but he is still on the slimmer side of things. Heading into the game, Beniers had two goals and three assists for five points in six games. Those numbers are very impressive. But his overall game in this one was even more impressive than his raw stats.
This is the first game I have ever tracked of Beniers, so I was unsure of what to exactly focus on. That said, I came in with an open mind, and boy was I impressed.
Beniers was directly involved in 11 breakouts. He cleared six with possession and two without possession. He failed on two more, and sent one attempt down the ice for an icing, though it was more Johnson’s fault than his own. Additionally, he was directly involved in seven zone entries, getting six of them in with possession. He only dumped the puck in once and didn’t fail to get the puck in the offensive zone in those seven attempts.
Once in the offensive zone, he did not disappoint. He attempted 10 passes and completed eight of them, good for an 80% accuracy rating. Beniers had two completed cross-ice passes and three attempts to get the puck to the slot. He completed two of those slot passes as well, with Johnson feeding off of those.
Takeaways for Beniers
Beniers is known for his responsible two-way game. He showed that in spades with his deployment alone. He played in the final minute, scoring the game-sealing empty-net goal. Beniers played on the penalty kill and did very well. He got involved in the powerplay and looked good there too. That alone convinced me that there’s a bit more to Beniers than just a responsibility factor at a young age.
Beniers drove his line, which featured Kent Johnson just about every single shift. Initially, I anticipated Johnson to drive the transition. Instead, it was Beniers. He worked extremely hard in his own zone to get possession. He would then do the work himself to get the puck out. If that wasn’t enough, he was often the guy leading the rush for his line as well. His motor was excellent in this game, and his work ethic was tangible.
Beniers also did a very good job on the forecheck, showcasing his speed and hockey IQ. It seemed that whenever he was on the ice, the puck was in the offensive end of the ice. Simply put, Beniers was easily one of, if not, the best players in the Michigan hockey prospects in this game. His draft stock will assuredly rise if he keeps doing this.
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