GUEST POST: Shippin’ Out From Boston: A Michigan Hockey NHL Roundup
Your guide to how the boys in Maize and Blue shook out in the big leagues.
Good morning, sports fans. It’s your girl, Taylor. For the many who don’t know me, I’m @seltzermom on Twitter. I like to think that I’m the Thicc Stauskas of Buffalo Sports Twitter – absurd, irreverent, nonstop posting aimed to take the piss out of every sports chud that exists – except I actually have more followers than Dan now. Make sure you tell him that.
As a rabid hockey fan and insufferable Michigan alumna, I’m always thrilled to hear rumblings of Michigan hockey prospects anywhere, and better yet, get the chance to talk about them. So when Ace kindly offered to let me write a bit about how each of those guys fared in their first professional outings, I couldn’t turn the opportunity down.
The, uh, administrative problems inside the program (centered largely around Mel Pearson and the alleged hostile work environment he supported) aside, this past year’s squad was undeniably talented, with four of the first five 2021 NHL Draft picks being Wolverines and most of the squad already drafted. Though the team didn’t get the championship we hoped for, hockey fans got a nice consolation prize: your favorite bois in the Maize and Blue hightailed it out of Boston to sign entry-level deals and get head starts in the NHL.
I’m specifically focused on the guys who got minutes in the NHL at the end of the season. As much as I’m legitimately very happy that Brendan Brisson signed a tryout agreement with the Henderson Silver Knights, this post could approach novella territory if we get too far in the weeds. The athletic department has a full press release for each of the guys who’ve gone pro.
This is going to be a bird’s eye view (with one exception). I won’t get into analytics charts or anything, either. You didn’t come here to do math, and neither did I.
With all that said, let’s get into it.
Kent Johnson, C, Columbus Blue Jackets
I’ll be real. I know this is probably bad of me to admit after sharing with you that I am a huge hockey fan, but I kind of forgot that the Blue Jackets were a team that exists (there are several Columbus-based sports teams I wish I forgot existed, but I digress). As with most of the teams we’re discussing in this post, Columbus is a young team resetting its foundations, with first-year head coach Brad Larsen at the helm. I know Zach Werenski plays for them, but I guess I just thought he was just, like, vibing somewhere, playing defense in the National Hockey League for no one.
Okay, Taylor, shut up. This is about Kent Johnson. The fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft, Johnson’s arrival to Columbus was highly anticipated. He’s a playmaker with silky mitts and great speed, and makes excellent decisions with the puck. None of the Michigan forwards ever seem particularly greedy, but Johnson knows when he’s got the sauce and when he’s in a position to set one of his guys up.
At 6’1'' and 167 lbs, Johnson’s drawback at the moment is that he’s a bit of a bean pole. He would benefit from bulking up in the offseason, but the stickhandling, speed and tact could see him in the top six, even when the team is healthy. He played on the second line toward the final few games of the season due to injury necessity, but I’d anticipate fits seamlessly into the Blue Jackets’ vision moving forward.
Nick Blankenburg, D, Columbus Blue Jackets
The more interesting story with Columbus, in my eyes, is Nick Blankenburg. The defenseman was signed on a one year, entry level deal as an undrafted free agent, and left a measurably positive impact in the seven games he played with the squad, netting his first NHL goal with his family in attendance.
Blankenburg sat out the final game with an injury, but the Michigan native and former captain will hopefully add the same steadiness he brought to the Wolverines squad (if he returns to Columbus, of course; he’s an RFA this summer). We love an undrafted guy success story, and I have high hopes Blankenburg fills that role.
My favorite highlight from his short time as a Blue Jacket? When he sent Jake Evans to the shadow realm.
Okay, I think we’re finally done talking about the Blue Jackets, a team I feel like I only learned about upon doing research for this post. Onto the next!
Thomas Bordeleau, C, San Jose Sharks
Bordeleau, a 2020 second-round pick, signed an amateur tryout deal with the San Jose Barracuda, the Sharks’ farm team, and moved up to the big leagues in the blink of an eye. The Sharks themselves struggled to find their way this season, but during Bordeleau’s brief tenure, played spoiler to the Vegas Golden Knights (who, if you don’t follow the NHL, joined the league via expansion in 2017, achieved immediate success and adopted a “quirky online” vibe straight out of Cool Brand Twitter that very quickly annoyed a lot of people).
Vegas’ playoff chances dwindled by the day at this point, and wins became crucial. The Sharks said a hearty “fuck that,” and with 0.9 seconds left in regulation, tied the game after playing largely from behind and forced overtime. In the shootout that followed, Bordeleau was brought on as the third shooter. He deked the absolute life out of Jose Theodore, moved forehand to backhand, and snapped the Sharks’ 11-game losing streak.
Though Vegas wasn’t formally eliminated from playoff contention that night, Bordeleau and the Sharks struck a devastating blow to a team that, prior to this year, had never missed the playoffs. Everyone loves a good spoiler, and that spoiler happened to be this dude.
Matty Beniers, C, Seattle Kraken
Drafted second overall by the league’s newest expansion team, making him the first player Seattle has ever drafted, Beniers joined a Kraken squad that didn’t achieve the instant success the Knights had immediately upon entry into the league. In ten games with the squad, though, he netted nine points – three goals and six assists.
Beniers generates unbelievable offense beyond his years. It takes some guys a long time to refine the one-timer that he already has, and if he’s set up around the faceoff circle, he won’t hesitate to fire. Or, he’ll camp out at the net and cherry pick, but doesn’t get greedy, still generating successful scoring opportunities if he doesn’t score himself. He has freakish vision and mastery of the entire offensive zone, as evidenced by his first NHL point – a cross-ice pass to Ryan Donato.
The only place the Kraken can go is up (or, well, down two places; they finished the season with the third fewest points in the league), and Beniers is poised to thrive in Seattle’s top six. I don’t need a chart in front of me to tell you that Beniers, undoubtedly, has got that dawg in ‘em, and I don’t see his success ending any time soon or Seattle changing too much about his game.
Speaking of dawgs…
Owen Power, D, Buffalo Sabres
It’s time to talk about Big Dawg. My large adult son.
In the past eleven years, Sabres fans have, in short, gone through it. We watched a team that we didn’t think could die become a shadow of itself. Consistent sellout crowds dwindled as the team got worse. Ownership took missteps left and right. They tanked for McDavid and got Jack Eichel as a consolation prize, which, uh, didn’t really go well for us, either.
But here we are. After one of the worst seasons of hockey – nay, of any sport – the Buffalo Sabres won the 2021 NHL draft lottery, and predictably took Power first overall. While the Wolverines ascended, the Sabres went on brutal hot-and-cold-but-mostly-cold streaks, but finished out their season strong, going 16-9-3 in March and April. Most Sabres fans, to our pleasant surprise, were actually sad to see the season end. Power was a delightful add at the close of the year to a team full of good vibes.
Power flew down to Tampa for his first skates as a Sabre, and made his debut against Toronto, just a short distance from his hometown. In eight games with the team, he netted two goals and an assist, involving himself heavily both offensively and defensively. As with many of the guys on this list with their respective clubs, seldom did it seem like Power was out of place on the team, or that the rest of the guys couldn’t read what he was trying to do.
Though the points offensively were a treat, I found myself caring much more about his intuition on defense. In his debut against Toronto, Power was cool and collected in the face of Auston Matthews and the Toronto offense. No, I shouldn’t be that impressed by the first overall pick in the world’s best hockey league having really solid fundamentals, but to stick to your game against your hometown team, against one of the league’s brightest offensive stars? I can’t give the kid enough credit. In just a few games, he showed distinct poise and ease on the ice reminiscent of a veteran; on the occasional slip-up, you’d almost forget he’s a rookie. Plus, he enters a Sabres defensive corps brimming with promise, as they already have a first-overall, offensive defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin, who had a breakout year in his own right.
The team is young, hungry, and brimming with talent, as it stood. Power was an instant contributor. Even if you aren’t a Sabres fan, you won’t be able to resist rooting for him.
You’d expect that struggling teams with the draft capital to pick as high as they did to see an immediate return on investment in their picks going pro to finish the season. I get that. With that said, I was particularly pleased to see that each team let their guy play in a way that suited his strengths. There’s not a ton of time at the end of a dying season to get into the nuts and bolts of a player’s game, but even still, I don’t expect them to have a hard time fully transitioning to the NHL when their first full seasons kick off in the fall. Each player, from my (mostly) outsider’s view, blended in well with their team’s on-ice dynamic. Call me a sick, eternal optimist, but I don’t see any of these Wolverines fading into hockey obscurity any time soon.
One more note on Buffalo. I would be remiss if I didn’t use this opportunity to amplify the needs of Buffalo’s East Side residents after the horrific, racist shooting that took the lives of ten innocent people on May 14. Not only was that grocery store targeted by a white supremacist for its location in a deeply segregated part of town, but the store is the only grocery store within a reasonable distance for residents. Folks on the East Side will feel the material and emotional impact of the mass shooting for longer than any of us may ever understand.
Please peruse this community resource document compiled and updated by Black Love Resists in the Rust, a Buffalo-based, Black-led community organization. In it, you’ll find some information specific to Buffalo, but also vetted donation links of organizations you can donate to in the wake of this tragedy, should you be able.