Michigan’s hockey program about to make history during 2021 NHL Draft

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Michigan’s hockey program will make history Friday night.

Last season, the Wolverines boasted one of the most talented freshman classes ever assembled by an NCAA team. Now three members of that class are expected to hear their names called early in the first round of the NHL draft. The first round begins 8 p.m. Friday with the following six rounds taking place Saturday.

Add in three incoming freshmen who also are expected to be drafted early, and Michigan is in position to break records.

Starting at the top, no college team has ever produced the first two picks in the draft. Only three college players – Erik Johnson in 2006, Rick DiPietro in 2000 and Joe Murphy in 1986 – have been selected first overall.

That is likely to change Friday as defenseman Owen Power is widely considered to be the top pick by the Buffalo Sabres, while forward Matty Beniers is projected to go No. 2 overall to the Seattle Kraken.

They would become the highest draft picks in Michigan history, moving ahead of defenseman Jack Johnson, who went No. 3 in 2005.

Meanwhile, forward Kent Johnson and incoming freshman defenseman Luke Hughes are expected to be top-10 picks.

No NCAA team has ever had three current players selected in the first round.

“I think unprecedented is the right word for it,” said Chris Peters, editor of Hockey Sense on Substack and former NHL draft and prospects analyst for ESPN. “It’s special. This really hasn’t happened before, where you have this many active players draft eligible. In terms of what it means for Michigan is, obviously they’ve identified the right kind of players, because the NHL teams are identifying them as well. I think the shine that this brings to NCAA hockey and to the program itself is really positive.”

Power, Beniers and Johnson entered last season as elite draft prospects and all maintained their high standing throughout the year, helping Michigan finish 15-10-1 before it had to withdraw from the NCAA Tournament because of COVID-19 protocol.

The 6-foot-5 Power, who hails from Ontario, led the NCAA in points by a freshman defenseman with 16 and improved his draft stock with a strong showing at the World Hockey Championship, helping Canada win gold.

“What really stood out about Owen was his progression over the course of the year,” Peters said. “He got better and better as it went on. His statistical profile is not overly exciting. He’s not like a top-level producer, but we also have to take in mind that the season was shortened, that there was kind of issues throughout the year (because of COVID-19). There were those inconsistencies, so you take it with a grain of salt. But then you look at what he did, going from Michigan to play for Team Canada at the World Championship and how prepared he was for that opportunity — not just to be a player on that team but to be a key player on that team — is pretty incredible.”

Beniers and Johnson were linemates for most of the season and top point producers on the team. The 6-foot-1 Beniers tied for the team lead with 10 goals, while the 6-foot-1 Johnson was second on the team with 27 points (nine goals, 18 assists).

“Matty Beniers is probably the best all-around center in this draft,” Peters said. “He’s the best defensively, the most competitive and one of the better skaters in the draft as well. And that drive that he plays with is really unrivaled in the in the draft. He was such a reliable forward at both ends of the ice, a point-per-game producer and he also got better as the year went on.

“With Kent Johnson, we knew right away that he was gonna come into this draft class and be one of the elite skill players, and he proved that at Michigan. His hand skills are high-end. One of the best puck-handlers in the draft, very creative, really good at getting pucks into the zone, which is such a huge component of the NHL now. You want guys that can make plays in the neutral zone and get through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone efficiently, and he does that very well. All three of those guys, I think, either met or exceeded expectations this year.”

Hughes, who played last season with the U.S. National Development Team Program, suffered a serious foot injury in March but is considered one of the top defensemen in the draft. He is the younger brother of former Michigan defenseman Quinn Hughes, who was drafted seventh overall in 2018, and forward Jack Hughes, the No. 1 overall pick in 2019.

Peters said there is a chance Power, Beniers, Johnson and Hughes all go in the top eight picks.

“I think it’s completely reasonable,” Peters said. “We expect power to go No. 1; there’s a strong chance but not a definite that Beniers would go No. 2. I think it’s more than likely at this point that we could see Luke Hughes go somewhere in the four-six range. I think if he’s there and the Devils are picking, it would make a lot of sense with Jack there but I think it would also fit a need for them.

“Between Johnson and Hughes, it’s difficult to say who’s at most risk for a potential drop. I think some teams are still concerned about Luke’s injury, which he appears to be mostly recovered from. And then there are others that it might be a preference thing. If you believe Johnson is going to be a center or a wing — I think most teams will tell you that they believe he’ll be a wing at the next level. There are some centers that could jump ahead of him in this draft class. I think the worst-case scenario is that one of them falls to like 15 or 16.”

The good news for Michigan is that all four could be on the ice together next season for the Wolverines. Power and Beniers both have said they are leaning toward returning to Ann Arbor for their sophomore seasons, while Peters said Johnson could benefit from another two more years of college hockey.

RELATED: As NHL draft nears, top prospects ponder turning pro or returning to Michigan

If forwards Brendan Brisson and Johnny Beecher – two former first-round picks — also return, Michigan could tie the North Dakota 2005-06 team for the most first-round picks on a single roster. There also is a chance incoming freshman forward Mackie Samoskevich is a first-round pick this weekend as well.

Incoming freshman forward Dylan Duke is projected to be selected in the second or third round, and the Wolverines have several other notable NHL draft picks on the roster too, including last year’s leading scorer, Thomas Bordeleau (second round, 2020), and goalie Erik Portillo (third round, 2019).

“If they all come back — and I thought it was this way last year — it’s about as close as you can get to essentially a college hockey super team,” Peters said. “Although this time, you’ve got Power, Beniers and Johnson with an extra year of experience. To have so many first-round draft picks on one team, I mean I don’t even know if there would be something comparable in junior hockey. The 2005 London Knights, maybe? It’s an insane amount of talent.”

Michigan bringing in and producing first-round picks is nothing new. There have been 25 first-round picks to play for the Wolverines, the most of any NCAA team.

But it won’t just be Michigan adding to its first-round total in this year’s draft. Peters said college players should be well-represented in this year’s draft, partly because they played more games than most prospects playing junior hockey.

One of the three major junior hockey leagues – the Ontario Hockey League – didn’t even have a season last year because of the pandemic, while another – the Western Hockey League – played a shortened season.

“I think to be able to see the NCAA and especially USHL (United State Hockey League) guys have a full season, it just made it that much more comfortable of a projection,” Peters said. “I think that has a lot to do with why these guys are ranked so highly as well because we have the most notes on those guys and the clearest picture of where they’re at right now and where they could go next.”

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