What makes Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson so effective together?
The 2021 draft eligibles have been two of Michigan's best players so far this year with 31 combined points
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From the first minutes of their collegiate careers, Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson have been linked. Beyond just playing on the same line — Johnson has been on Beniers’ left wing every game they’ve both played — the duo combined for two goals in Michigan’s first game of the season and haven’t looked back since.
With 18 points in 16 games, Johnson is tied for the team lead in points, and Beniers is third with 13 points in 14 games. Johnson has assisted on all three of Beniers’ even-strength goals, Beniers has assisted on two of Johnson’s, and on three other goals, Beniers has had the primary assist with Johnson contributing the secondary assist.
To put it simply: Johnson and Beniers are two of the Wolverines’ most important offensive drivers, and just about everything they’ve done, they’ve done together.
“They’re really engaged with each other as far as how they want to play,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson told The Michigan Daily last week. “Matty’s probably got a little bit more of a motor and speed. Kent’s a little bit better cerebrally and (with) what he does with the puck. But they both read off each other extremely well.”
Let’s take a look at what makes Johnson and Beniers work so well together.
Transitioning the puck
The duo’s success together starts with their skills in transition. Per Madeline Campbell’s zone entry and exit tracking, Beniers executes controlled zone exits 89% of the time, and he enters the offensive zone with possession just under 80% of the time. Johnson is slightly less successful, with a 66% controlled exit rate and a 73% possession entry rate, though he does attempt a slightly higher volume of both than Beniers (8.83 entries and 6.58 exits attempted per game, compared to Beniers at 7.36 and 5.18).
For context, Corey Sznajder’s NHL microstat tracking shows that the very best puck-movers in the NHL exit the zone with possession around 60% of the time and enter with possession about 80% of the time. Comparing it to the NCAA isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but regardless, Beniers’ numbers are genuinely impressive, and Johnson’s aren’t too shabby either.
To state the obvious, you can’t score a goal if you don’t have the puck in the offensive zone, and Beniers and Johnson are two of Michigan’s best in transition. Johnson has more entry attempts than anyone else on the team by a wide margin — 106 compared to Thomas Bordeleau with 89 — and Beniers is a close third with 81.
The Wolverines’ defensemen, as expected, do the lion’s share of the work exiting the defensive zone, but among forwards, Johnson and Beniers again rank first and third on the team in exits attempted. Beniers’ 89% possession exit rate leads the team by more than seven percent. I could go on and on with more numbers and team rankings, but it’s clear that Johnson and Beniers are two of Michigan’s most effective forwards in transition.
The gif below shows just one of Beniers’ patented zone entries, but you can extrapolate that he does similar things multiple times in each game.
Extended shifts in the offensive zone
It feels like every time I look at a Michigan game, Beniers and Johnson have the puck in the offensive zone. That starts with their aforementioned skills in transition, but their gift for maintaining possession once they get into the zone deserves note as well. The video above is just four such examples from this season thus far.
The most notable shift starts with 18 minutes left in the second period against Ohio State (39 seconds into the video above). It all starts with — let’s take a moment to be surprised — a zone entry from Johnson, and then Beniers goes to work immediately after. Over the course of the next 77 seconds, Michigan creates at least six or seven scoring chances, Beniers and Johnson each touch the puck numerous times, and though that shift doesn’t end with the puck in the back of the net, it was instrumental in the Wolverines eventually breaking the 0-0 tie and winning, 4-2.
That kind of momentum-changing shift is something that has become a calling card of Beniers and Johnson’s line, and it never fails to be fun to watch.
Making plays together
No matter how well it seems like two players would work on paper, it doesn’t matter if they don’t have ~chemistry~ on the ice. Just as Pearson said, Beniers and Johnson read off each other extremely well. They each just seem to know exactly where the other is going to be — and they have since their very first game together. It’s no wonder that they’ve combined for eight goals already this year, nearly 14% of Michigan’s 58 total goals.
Here’s just a few of the many examples of Beniers and Johnson as a lethal combination.
The gif above is the most recent example of Beniers and Johnson combining for a goal, and it may be their most impressive effort thus far. Johnson takes the puck out of a battle in the neutral zone and chips it over to Luke Morgan entering the zone. Morgan gets the puck back to Beniers, who immediately sees Johnson with time, space and no one between him and Dylan St. Cyr in net. Johnson does the rest, and it’s a beauty.
Johnson deserves every bit of his reputation as a highly-skilled player that’s electric to watch, but there’s something uniquely entertaining about watching him make a play that took some (insert your favorite iteration of grit/toughness/jam/grind here). Michigan State’s Mitchell Mattson does an effective job of tying up Johnson on the wall, and he still manages to make a positive play. All Jack Becker has to do is bump the puck barely three feet to Beniers as he crashes toward the net, and Beniers fights his way to his fourth goal of the year.
We’ve seen a goal by Johnson with an assist from Beniers and we’ve seen a goal by Beniers with an assist from Johnson, so for one final example, let’s look at Beniers and Johnson each assisting on the same goal. Nick Granowicz often finds himself in position for these tap-ins around the net, but this one might be the easiest of his career. Johnson fights past Wisconsin’s Ty Emberson to pounce on a loose puck and, after a quick shoulder check, sees Beniers coming down the slot all alone. Beniers’ initial shot is saved, but Granowicz is right there for the easy tap-in.
Johnson and Beniers will both be high picks in this summer’s draft, likely in the top 10. I’m not sure if there’s ever been two high-end draft eligibles playing on the same line together in the NCAA but if it has happened, it hasn’t happened more than a handful of times. The duo’s combination of chemistry, effectiveness, and individual skill has made their line one of the Wolverines’ best, and it has been since the beginning of the year. Every night, it’s special to watch two such talented players do their thing in concert with one another.
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