The NHL draft lottery is a beacon of hope for otherwise defeated fanbases forced to watch other teams ride the emotional high of a playoff run. The fantasy of landing the top pick of the draft provides a morsel of hope for better times ahead.
Unfortunately, not since perhaps 2012 has the top of the draft board looked less appealing. Forget about a prodigy like Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby; there aren't even any instant game-changers available this summer.
As a result, there is no obvious choice at first overall. In fact, there are four or five prospects a team could justify taking with the top pick. Any hope of narrowing that list was crushed by the COVID-19 pandemic's disruption of the hockey season, leaving many prospects with little chance to separate themselves from the pack.
A lottery win is nevertheless good news for any team. It's better to have the first pick of the player pool than to not. The 2017 draft was similarly perceived as weak and open-ended yet has since produced marquee players such as Elias Pettersson and Cale Makar. This draft will inevitably produce a star or two, but it's going to be a difficult job for the team with the chosen pingpong balls to figure out who that player might be.
The closest to a consensus first overall pick is Michigan defenseman Owen Power. Although scouting services rank him all over the place, TSN Bob McKenzie's April poll of NHL scouts has Power at the top of the board. So too does NHL Central Scouting.
Instead, I'd argue the best choice for the winner of June 2's lottery is Power's college teammate Matty Beniers.
Beniers, a center, grew up outside Boston and is a product of the USA Hockey's National Team Development Program (NTDP). In 2018-19, Beniers played two draft classes above his own by featuring for the USNTDP U18 team alongside Jack Hughes and Cole Caufield. Beniers more than held his own against the older competition, registering 20 points in 20 USHL games.
After excelling again in 2019-20, Beniers made the jump to college hockey for his draft season. Originally committed to Harvard, Beniers switched his commitment to Michigan alongside fellow top 2021 draft prospects Power and Kent Johnson.
Once again, playing multiple years above his age group, Beniers was a standout player for the Wolverines. His 10 goals and 14 assists put him among the better predraft totals in recent memory, and he was named to the Big Ten Conference's All-Freshman Team.
His strong college performance and familiarity with the U.S. program earned him a spot on the USA roster at the 2021 World Junior Championship. Beniers was stuck behind the more senior Trevor Zegras and Alex Turcotte at center, but in third-line minutes produced a respectable one goal and two assists in seven games and did his part to help the team win the gold medal.
Player comparisons should be interpreted with caution. They often oversimplify a player's skill set and create unfair expectations of that player's future.
With that in mind, Beniers has some stylistic similarities to New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal. Beniers, at 6'1" and 175 pounds, is of similar stature and won't get any accolades for his strength or physical play. As a broad analysis, he's a good skater who, like Barzal, is more of a distributor than a finisher and can create plays in the offensive zone.
The similarities run deeper than that. One of the hallmarks of Barzal's game is his ability to carry the puck through the neutral zone and create entries into the offensive zone. Beniers is similarly effective in this manner. With great agility, Beniers can dice through the neutral zone and change direction in a flash to send defenders the wrong way.
In particular, he is fearless when carrying through the middle lane, creating a pick-your-poison dilemma for defenders who can either collapse on him and leave wingers open for him to feed or concede the territory to him for an offensive zone setup. Despite his appetite for carrying the puck toward danger, he rarely makes costly turnovers. To make a baseball analogy, he swings for home runs but rarely strikes out.
The other comparable feature of their games is in puck possession. Barzal loves the puck on his stick in the offensive zone and is not afraid to carry it for extended periods, almost resorting to a game of keep away.
Beniers also makes plays in this manner, carrying the puck around the perimeter of the offensive zone. The idea is that, by moving into different areas of the ice, he changes the angle of attack and forces opposing players to move with him and adapt to the new scenario.
Inevitably, a defending player will be late to an assignment or make the wrong read, and opportunities for a shot or pass will open up. With his vision, Beniers can find these passing seams and quickly set up his teammates for high-quality scoring chances.
The key theme for Barzal and Beniers on the offensive side of the puck is that they thrive holding on to the puck and constantly changing the angle of attack, preying on the first defender to make a wrong move.
As this is purely a stylistic comparison, it's important to caution that Barzal is elite in those areas of the game. He's a very good skater and a better stickhandler who can beat defenders one-on-one with his hands just as well as his skates. While Beniers will make plays in the NHL, it will be asking a lot to expect him to match Barzal's elite dynamism.
One area where Beniers has more upside is on the defensive end. Barzal works hard on the backcheck to eliminate his man from the play and is one of the better players in this draft class at winning puck battles. Even despite his age and on a team with a number of more veteran hardworking players, Michigan head coach Mel Pearson never hesitated to deploy Beniers on the penalty kill and in other critical defensive shifts.
Beniers is a creative offensive center who transitions the puck quickly and effectively from his own end into the offensive end and then is cool and calm in possession once his team has settled. He wants the puck on his stick and does a good job of drawing opposing players out of position and then finding teammates to capitalize on his quality setups. He's an honest defensive center who will fight to break up opposing transition rushes.
An encouraging litmus test for his skills, as well as future ability to adapt to stronger competition, has been his success at high levels of hockey. He isn't dominating at a low junior level but instead is impressing against grown men in college and against the top teenagers in the world at the World Juniors.
A lack of any elite skills inhibits his upside somewhat, as does his subpar shooting ability. He'll get his share of goals by spending so much time in the offensive zone and finding soft spots near the net, but his wrist shot isn't going to make professional goaltenders nervous.
However, his dynamic playmaking ability and well-rounded game off the puck will likely lead to a lengthy career as a top-six NHL center who sees ice in a variety of situations and creates opportunities for his wingers to finish the plays he starts. Beniers isn't going to going to singlehandedly alter the outlook for whichever franchise drafts him, but he holds the best combination in the 2021 NHL draft of immediate translatable NHL abilities and upside.