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Top Kraken draft pick Matty Beniers will return to University of Michigan for sophomore season

Aug. 21, 2021 Updated Sat., Aug. 21, 2021 at 8:58 p.m.

Matty Beniers of the US shouts during the Ice Hockey World Championship quarterfinal match between the United States and Slovakia at the Arena in Riga, Latvia, Thursday, June 3, 2021.  (Associated Press)
Matty Beniers of the US shouts during the Ice Hockey World Championship quarterfinal match between the United States and Slovakia at the Arena in Riga, Latvia, Thursday, June 3, 2021. (Associated Press)
By Geoff Baker Seattle Times

The Kraken won’t have No. 2 overall draft pick Matty Beniers to help with its center depth when training camp opens next month.

The University of Michigan’s official hockey Twitter account stated Friday that two-way centerman Beniers, 18, had joined teammate Owen Power in deciding to return to the school for the 2021-22 campaign. Power on Thursday announced he would return to Michigan rather than join the Buffalo Sabres, who made him the No. 1 overall pick at last month’s NHL draft one slot ahead of Beniers.

Kraken general manager Ron Francis said Friday he’d recently spoken to Beniers’ agent/advisor, Pat Brisson, about the player’s immediate future and they’d agreed this course of action was likely the best. Kraken assistant general manager Jason Botterill had also spoken directly with Beniers at last month’s Team USA World Junior Summer Showcase camp in Plymouth, Michigan – which took place the week immediately following the draft.

“I think the No. 1 priority for us is not to rush somebody,” Francis said. “He’s got a chance to make some gains this year and do something special, try to win a national championship.”

The Kraken enters camp somewhat thin at the center position, with projected top-liner Yanni Gourde out until at least November after shoulder surgery for a torn labrum. Alex Wennberg, a third-line center much of his career with the Florida Panthers, is expected to handle the top line in Gourde’s absence.

There had been some thought Beniers might come to camp and possibly help the top two lines, but he now won’t be eligible to join the Kraken until Michigan’s season is done.

Beniers could theoretically play the NCAA season and then join the Kraken as quickly as next spring. Francis said the Kraken will monitor his college progress and then make the call whether to have him join the team for the NHL season’s final weeks, or rest up in time for training camp in September 2022.

The Kraken maintains the rights to Beniers throughout his college career, but this sophomore season will indeed be the last he plays for Michigan ahead of signing a professional contract. Only about a third of NHL players that first play in the NCAA spend all four years at school and top prospects tend to leave after a year or two.

NCAA rules allow players to have agents ahead of the draft, but they can only give career path advice as “family advisors” at a contracted rate not tied to any future pro contract. They can’t make any financial deals for a player or comment publicly on their behalf.

In drafting Beniers, Francis had said immediately afterward that he’d discuss with him whether he felt it best to return to school.

Beniers had expressed interest in doing that, namely given the star-studded Michigan team – with three prospects taken with the first five overall picks – had been denied a chance to play in last season’s NCAA tournament due to players being in COVID-19 protocol.

“I think going back for an extra year, you can keep building confidence,” Beniers said the day he was drafted. “The big thing is, not having a real year last year, not having a full schedule. … I want to really try to make a run at the national championship.”

He added: “Those are some of the perks that I kind of want to do.”

Michigan forward Kent Johnson was drafted at No. 5 by the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Beniers had hoped all three could rejoin the Wolverines for a shot at a national championship they believe was denied them. It was announced Friday that Johnson is indeed returning, enabling the trio to fulfill their wish.

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