So much attention on Michigan’s hockey program, and too few seats for scouts at Yost Ice Arena due to COVID-19 restrictions, created early season challenges for Wolverines coach Mel Pearson.
“NHL people were trying to find their way into a our building in a lot of different ways, whether as an usher or working in the press box or whatever,” Pearson said with a chuckle, recalling some of the more creative credential requests he received from scouts after being initially limited to 16 seats for 32 NHL teams.
Eventually, everyone who needed a spot got one.
The sudden surge in interest was readily apparent, and not simply because the Big Ten — unlike Canada’s three top junior leagues — was one of North America’s few developmental leagues able to pull off a full season last year.
Ann Arbor, Michigan, became a must-stop on the scouting trail because of a Wolverines lineup featuring a trio of highly touted freshmen in defenseman Owen Power, and forwards Kent Johnson and Mathew Beniers.
At 6-foot-6 and 213 pounds, the smooth-skating, play-making Power is the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s top-ranked North American player, with Johnson listed third and Beniers sixth entering the draft on Friday night.
Michigan could become the first college hockey program to have three players selected in the first round. Michigan State in 1990, Boston College in 2000 and Ohio State in 2001 each had two players selected in the first round.
“It’s an extraordinary year to say the least. And I’m coming up on my 40th year in college hockey at the Division 1 level,” Pearson said. “I’ve been around some high-end players, but never the quality and the quantity that we’re seeing here at Michigan. Just extremely proud and extremely happy for the young men and their families.”
Add in defenseman Luke Hughes (ranked fourth), who is committed to playing at Michigan this season, and the draft will have a distinct Go Blue theme to it while being held remotely for a second consecutive year due to the pandemic.
Canadian junior center Mason McTavish is the second-ranked North American skater, while Swedish left wing William Eklund is the top-ranked European.
The Buffalo Sabres hold the first pick, followed by the expansion Seattle Kraken and Anaheim Ducks.
Power finished with three goals and 16 points in 26 games to earn conference all-rookie team honors. From Mississauga, Ontario, he then represented Canada at World Championship, where he finished with three assists and won gold. His performance, especially being able to showcase his skating ability on the larger European ice surface in Latvia, cemented his top ranking.
“If he had not gone with the men’s team, he still would be No. 1 on our list and, I think, on a lot of lists,” Central Scouting Bureau director Dan Marr said. “But I think the fact of what he did on the men’s national team and won a gold medal, anyone who was presenting an argument for someone else to go No. 1, they just didn’t bother arguing the point anymore.”
Power could be the third NCAA player selected first in the NHL draft, joining Michigan State’s Joe Murphy, who went No. 1 to Detroit in 1986, and Boston University goalie Rick DiPietro (New York Islanders, 2000).
Johnson, from North Vancouver, British Columbia, finished second among college freshmen with 27 points (nine goals, 18 assists) while making the switch from center to wing. Beniers, from Hingham, Massachusetts, finished with 14 goals and 14 assists, and helped the U.S. win gold at the World Junior championships.
There’s a good chance the trio will be back together at Michigan for their sophomore season, with Power already saying he’s leaning toward returning to school. One of Power’s reasons to come back is the opportunity to enjoy a year on campus without coronavirus restrictions in which games were played without fans present.
There’s also unfinished business. The Wolverines were seeded second entering the NCAA Tournament before being removed from participation because of positive COVID-19 test results.
“They’re a very tight group and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them all come back,” Pearson said. “They’ve talked about it: `Hey, let’s make a run for this and then let’s go try our hand at professional hockey.’”
Eklund has also indicated he’d prefer spending one more season developing in Europe before turning pro. The 18-year-old earned Swedish Hockey League rookie of the year honors in finishing tied for second on Djurgarden with 11 goals, while adding 12 assists for 23 points in 40 games.
IN THE FAMILY
Hughes is following in the NHL footsteps of his older brothers Quinn, who was drafted No. 7 by Vancouver in 2018, and Jack, who went No. 1 to New Jersey two years ago.
Only two other families have had at least three brothers selected in the first round. Duane, Brent, Rich and Ron Sutter did so from 1979-82. And then there was Eric, Marc and Jordan Staal from 2003-06.