Waiting for a plane to depart for his first trip ever to Seattle Sunday afternoon, matty beniers reflected on a group text thread in recent days with assistant general manager Jason Botterill (a former Michigan star himself) and Troy Bodie, ex-NHLer who will oversee the American Hockey League affiliate Coachella Valley franchise but also serving as a player development point-of -contact for the Kraken’s 2021 draft choices.
“They were talking with me about the excitement and accomplishment of playing in the NCAA Frozen Four, encouraging me to enjoy it,” said Beniers during a phone conversation. “They obviously texted after Thursday [a heartbreaking overtime loss to eventual champion Denver].”
Beniers and his Michigan teammates flew home after the game. Over the weekend, Seattle’s top draft choice and No. 2 pick overall in last summer’s NHL Draft talked with Kraken GM Ron Francis by phone about “his thoughts on him and my thoughts about the future.” But Francis didn’t push and, in fact, respected how hard Beniers took the loss and falling short of the hockey dream to win a national championship.
By Sunday morning, Beniers decided his future was to be in Seattle Monday to sign his entry-level contract, suit up for practice in the morning and fly to Calgary with his new teammates during the afternoon. When it was announced Beniers and the Kraken had agreed to terms, Beniers’ phone filled with new text threads from Kraken players by the time he landed in the Pacific Northwest.
“A bunch of guys sent me nice texts and said reach out if you need anything,” said Beniers. “It’s actually a lot of texts. They’ve all been great on my first day, answering questions about drills and stuff.”
Before jetting to Canada Monday, Beniers and Francis met with the media, sharing a podium and looking comfortable with each other and the moment.
Beniers said it was “devastating we didn’t get the job done but, overall, it was a great year” at Michigan, one in which “we all grew as people and players.”
“I’m gonna miss those guys,” said Beniers, who made a point of hanging out with his teammates both Friday and Saturday while also mulling whether to join the Kraken or stay at Michigan for his junior year.
“The reasons why we liked Matty when we drafted him are the same reasons that were all there this weekend [on and off the ice],” said Francis. “He was all-in to win a national championship. When that didn’t happen it bothered him, so he took some time for him to sort through and get to the decision best for him.
“We’re excited about that [decision] and we know he’s all in when he gets here.”
Beniers smiled when asked about his first NHL practice, saying it was “pretty fun to have people at practice.”
A sizable crowd in the bleachers at the Starbucks rink at Kraken Community Iceplex watched Beniers look fast on his skates and during line drills playing with Jordan Eberle and Ryan Donato. The rookie-to-be set up his linemates and fired some impressive shots of his own. Both veterans made it a point to talk with Beniers during breaks.
Video: Media Availability: matty beniers & Ron Francis
During one of those drills, defenseman carson soucy cold-stopped Beniers at the blue line. Later, after Beniers was encouraged by teammates to move to the middle of the team circle to lead stretches at center ice, Soucy skated toward Beniers to give him a friendly tap on the shin guards. Donato stayed late with Beniers to work on shots in the offensive zone.
“His first game is going to be a learning curve,’ said Donato who played with Beniers during last spring’s IIHF Men’s World Championships in Latvia and works out at the same gym in the Boston area during summers. “I’m excited to see what I can do I’ve obviously seen him play before at multiple different levels. He’s a great kid.”
“Everybody is here to support on his side. We want him to do well. He knows that he has the full support of his teammates and coaches and the organization. He should be confident he can make things happen and do things he was drafted to do.”
Notably, Francis said he likes Beniers’ personality-“an easy-going guy”-and he is “excited to see that in our locker room.”
“He is a talented hockey player,” said Francis. “This is the start of the process for him. The player you see now is not going to be the player he is five months from now or two years from now. It’s going to be a process to continue to grow and get better. We’ re here to help with that growth.”
There was no final decision Monday about whether Beniers plays Tuesday in Calgary, but coach Dave Hakstol said more than once in his press conference his newest player “carries himself with great confidence.” He added that playing with Eberle (“such a good pro”) figures to be a “great sounding board” on the bench between shifts and in the locker room.
Hakstol said Donato and Beniers have “a past comfort level” but the primary reason for the two playing with Eberle is “more so the type of player” Donato is, per his penchant for getting to the net and winning puck battles.
Francis noted a couple of facts maybe not known to all Kraken fans. Beniers “lost probably six to eight pounds” during the Beijing Olympics (food wasn’t so great) when discussing the top prospect’s nutrition plan over the summer. Also regarding summer, Francis said Beniers’ 2021 offseason was hampered by a high ankle sprain suffered during the men’s world championships last May.
It was hard not to think about the potential storybook connection between Francis, the 23-season Hall of Fame player who debuted in the NHL at 18, sitting next to a young player who is also known as a two-way center with offensive creativity. Plus, Beniers will wear the number 10 on his Seattle jersey (his dad’s number as a Cornell football wide receiver), same digits as Francis.
But there is at least one difference in whatever lyrical future comparisons between the two.
“My first [NHL] game was a little bit crazy,” said Francis, who was called from the Sault Ste. Marie juniors team for which he starred early season after getting drafted No. 4 overall by the Hartford Whalers in 1981 NHL Draft. “I played for ‘the Soo’ in Brantford [Ontario] on a Thursday night and Niagara Falls Friday,
“Our [Whalers] GM Larry Plow was there to meet me. We drove to Buffalo and stayed in a hotel. We got up the next morning and flew to Hartford. I was at the morning skate and played that night.
“I flew to Toronto the next morning [Sunday] A scout met me and I played [for Sault Ste. Marie] in Kitchener [Ontario] that afternoon and then went back to Toronto after the game. I was on a three-game tryout. But we’re not gonna do that with Matty. You only get one opportunity to play in your first NHL game. We are looking forward to seeing him in a Kraken jersey, No. 10 out on the ice.”