How many Wolverines does it take to dominate the top 10 spots in an NHL Draft?
Four. Perhaps. No joke.
Everyone knows that college hockey will be represented well in this year’s draft. What remains to be seen, though, is whether the top overall pick will be from the University of Michigan and how many total Wolverines will be chosen before the draft is an hour old.
Three Michigan sophomores are among the most talked-about, draft-eligible players this year. Defenseman Owen Power is widely regarded to be the likely No. 1 overall pick when the draft begins Friday.
His classmates, forwards Kent Johnson and Matty Beniers, are projected top-10 picks. Johnson may go as high as No. 2 and Beniers as high as fourth. Incoming freshman defenseman Luke Hughes – brother of NHLers Quinn (Vancouver) and Jack (New Jersey) – is also projected to be chosen as high as No. 4.
“It’s going to be such an historical evening not only for the University of Michigan but for college hockey,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson.
Should he be chosen first overall by the Buffalo Sabres, Power will become the fourth NCAA player to be the NHL’s top pick and second Canadian-born collegian to garner that spot. With all the attention focused on him, Power recognizes that this group of Michigan and Michigan-bound players is unique.
“I think all of us know where the guys are and how good all the guys are – and how good all the guys on the team are,” said Power. “The development at the program and the history of the program are big parts to why all of us sign on at Michigan. Obviously, they’re doing a really good job of developing players and having players go on to play in the NHL.”
Only once before have four NCAA players been chosen in the top 10 of an NHL Draft but never all from the same college team. In 2006, Minnesota’s Erik Johnson was the top draft pick. He was joined by his teammates Kyle Okposso and Phil Kessel in the top 10, along with North Dakota’s Jonathan Toews.
“It’s an exciting time,” said Pearson. “I’m really looking forward to the draft. I’m really happy for the guys we have. They’ve worked hard through this past year to put themselves in the position to be selected.”
In advance of that selection process, Michigan’s high-profile sophomores have been juggling interviews with prospective NHL teams, media scrutiny and training for the upcoming season.
“I think I’ve had no problem handling it,” said Power, who turns 19 in November. “Maybe at times getting a bit unorganized, kind of forgetting about some stuff, but I think overall it’s been pretty good.”
Pearson said that Power’s calm demeanor is one of the things that makes him so attractive to NHL teams.
“You can see it in how he plays and how he talks,” Pearson said. “He just has a way about him, just that calmness, the patience, the poise. It’s a huge factor. He just goes about his business.
“He’s confident with who he is. Whatever happens, he’s just confident in his ability, and who he is, and where he’s headed and how he’s going to get there.”
Power said he’s talked to “probably 10 to 15” NHL teams.
“I don’t know,” he said. “There were some during the year and then some after.”
When asked about how many teams that have contacted him, Beniers laughed and asked, “What did Owen say? Yeah. Probably about that.”
Beniers said that while the attention has been “pretty crazy” and that he’s enjoyed the process, he’s trying to take it in stride.
“I’m not putting too much stress on myself,” he said. “We’ll see what happens in the upcoming draft, but right now I’m pretty much working out and doing my regular summer. Nothing too different.”
Like Power, Beniers also turns 19 in November.
“It’s been really helpful this year to go through this process with two other guys,” said Beniers. “That was really nice this year. I think it was pretty special with three of us in the running and more to come for next year. It’s really cool.”
Michigan has seven draft-eligible players. In addition to Luke Hughes, incoming Wolverines Mackie Samoskevich and Dylan Duke are both likely to be selected no lower than the second round of the draft, and Mark Estapa may be chosen in a later round. All three are forwards. Incoming freshman Ethan Edwards, another forward, was picked in the fourth round of the 2020 NHL Draft by the New Jersey Devils.
“We really like our class,” said Pearson. “Obviously Luke Hughes, and you throw in Dylan Duke from the [U.S. National Team Development] Program who’s a solid player, Ethan Edwards who’s already been drafted. Then you’ve got Mackie Samoskevich, who’s a late first-rounder, second-round pick but just a tremendous talent. Then there’s poor Mark Estapa. Nobody talks about him, but he’s going to be a dynamite player.”
Samoskevich, who may be another first-round pick, said that he’s loved “every second” of the time leading up to the draft, but that the draft itself is a means to an end.
“You want to go as high as possible and it’s always been a dream of mine to get drafted,” said Samoskevich. “But I think at the end of the day, the goal is to make the NHL, no matter where you are in the draft.”
“It’s just a really exciting time and a time that I think I’m just taking it all in,” said Duke. “I’m kind of just looking forward to the opportunity to play at Michigan, and the opportunity to be able to get drafted here and the opportunity to go to the World Junior Summer Showcase. I’m just ready to soak it all in and take in the experience.”
Samoskevich, Hughes and Duke have all been invited to the 2021 World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Mich., July 24-31, which coincides with the NHL Draft.
While the incoming Michigan freshmen won’t be feeling much pressure to forego their college experience, there’s been plenty of speculation about whether Power, Johnson and Beniers will return for their sophomore seasons. There is a collective feeling of unfinished business with this Michigan team that just missed the 2021 NCAA tournament.
Playing with Michigan this coming season “would be awesome,” said Power.
“We’ve got so many good guys and such a close group, and obviously we’re going to have a really good shot at winning a national championship with the team we have, so I think being able to play with Luke and all the other guys would be pretty special.”
Power said that NHL teams have asked him what he wants to do but they haven’t given him much advice. “I think that when a team drafts me, we’ll go more in depth and talk a little bit more about,” said Power, who also said that getting a “true college experience” following COVID isolation will “factor in” to his decision whether to return.
“I’m not someone who thinks about it all the time,” said Power. “I’m just focusing on my game and continuing to develop in the gym and on the ice.”
Beniers sounds as though he’s leaning toward returning to Michigan. “This upcoming year, it’s all about strength, getting stronger, getting bigger, getting faster. That’s kind of the next step for me to become an NHL player, I think. That’s my big focus.”
Pearson – of course – is hoping that all of this talent returns to give the Wolverines a real shot at a national championship, but he says that a sophomore season may be just what each of these players needs to prepare for the NHL.
“You can talk about Cole Caufield and him coming back this year and just what that year meant him, and how much he improved. Look at Quinn Hughes or Zach Werenski or even Josh Norris or Cale Makar,” said Pearson. “You can go down the list of just defensemen. Cam York. Cam York grew so much from his first year to his second year, then he goes and becomes captain of the World Junior team, has a great year for us, is an All-American, and then, bang, at the end of [his sophomore] year with us he gets in games with Philly.
“I think that’s the path Owen’s looking at. If he comes back, it’s a solid path, it’s a good plan. To me, the growth you have from that first year to that second year is amazing and I can only imagine Owen and the rest of those guys at the end of the year, how good they’re going to be.”
Pearson said that he also wants last year’s rookie class to have a full college experience following the COVID year. Pearson wants to them “to be a student at Michigan,” and to “be able to go to a football game on Saturday, to play in Yost in front of the Children of Yost and the band, all those things” and more, like taking advantage of everything a university with the culturally diverse student body that Michigan has.
“Walking around campus and meeting people from all over the world,” said Pearson. “They’re hockey players, don’t get me wrong, but they came here for a reason. There’s more to them than that. We always tell our student-athletes to take advantage of Michigan – the people you meet, the culture, the town, the other sports. There’s so many things to take advantage of when you’re here. You’re only young once. That may be part of the reason they may decide to come back.”
Besides, said Pearson, the NHL Draft is “just the start of the journey.”
“You don’t walk out of the draft a better player,” said Pearson. “That’s when the work really has to be put in to become the player someone thought you were going to be.”
AT A GLANCE: Michigan draft-eligible players
Owen Power (Mississauga, Ont.). Defenseman. Had three goals and 13 assists in 26 games as a Michigan freshman. Projected to be the No. 1 overall pick. At 6-foot-6, Power is a surprisingly agile two-way player with the ability to assess the entire ice in any situation.
Kent Johnson (Port Moody, B.C.). Forward. Had nine goals and 18 assists in 26 games as a Michigan freshman. Projected to go as high as No. 2 overall. Johnson is nuanced with the puck, a craftsman passer. He has the potential to become a dynamic forward.
Matty Beniers (Hingham, Mass.). Forward. Had 10 goals and 14 assists in 24 games as a Michigan freshman. Projected to go as high as No. 4 overall. Beniers is a good skater, an excellent set-up man, and plays very good defensively.
Luke Hughes (Canton, Mich.) Defenseman. Had six goals and 28 assists in 34 for the U.S. National Development Program Under-18 Team in 2020-21. Projected to go as high as No. 4 overall. Like his brothers, Hughes is an excellent skater. He has great hands to compliment his excellent defensive sense.
Mackie Samoskevich (Newtown, Conn.). Forward. Had 13 goals and 24 assists in 36 games with the Chicago Steel (USHL) in 2020-21. Also served as an alternate captain. Projected to go in the first round or high in the second round. Samoskevich is a tenacious player with a nose for the puck, a great skater and a patient playmaker.
Dylan Duke (Strongsville, Ohio). Forward. Had 29 goals and 20 assists in 50 games for the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-18 Team in 2020-21. Projected to be a high second-round pick. Duke is very physical for his size (5-foot-10) and is especially good in front of the net. He’s not flashy, but he’s where he should be when needed.
Mark Estapa (St. Clair, Mich.). Forward. Had 10 goals and 21 assists in 45 games with the Tri-City Storm (USHL) in 2020-21. Projected to be a late-round pick. Another physical player, Estapa is considered a good special teams player.