As the NHL calendar turns to December, the league has moved past the unofficial quarter mark of the 2022-23 season. Every team has played at least 23 games to this point, giving us a decent sample size of evidence with which to evaluate players, teams, and the like.
Although the Seattle Kraken’s start to the campaign has featured a number of surprising storylines, there is perhaps none more relevant to the team’s future outlook than the play of center Matty Beniers.
The 20-year-old has quickly become one of the team’s key figures in his first full NHL season, demonstrating why the Kraken felt comfortable taking him with the franchise’s first-ever draft pick in 2021. Seattle’s offense is noticeably improved, and Beniers’ presence is a significant reason driving its growth.
Understandably, the American phenom has rocketed to the top of the Calder Trophy discussion, with many earmarking him as the early frontrunner to be named the NHL’s rookie-of-the-year.
However, there is at least one other name threatening to intrude into the conversation, and it’s by coincidence that they were also a part of the vaunted 2021 draft class, as well as Beniers’ college teammate.
The Buffalo Sabres’ hulking 6-foot-6 behemoth of a blueliner, Owen Power, has demonstrated poise and maturity beyond his years since being thrust onto the team’s top pair after a rash of injuries. He ranks within the top 30 of all skaters in average ice time and has posted strong 5-on-5 results despite featuring heavily for a still-rebuilding Sabres squad.
Both merit serious consideration for the Calder, but in a twist that should surprise no one, only one can actually win the award. Now, with some additional context injected into the discussion, let’s dive into the finer points underlining both Beniers’ and Power’s Calder Trophy case.
Power Flashing Future Norris-Winning Potential
Although NHL coaches are often slaves to misguided narratives and their own cognitive biases, how often they deploy players – and in which situations – can be used as a barometer of their trust and confidence in said player. When it comes to the relationship between Power and Sabres’ bench boss Don Granato, that dynamic is on full display.
Since the team’s defensive specialist in Mattias Samuelsson was injured on October 22nd, Power has quickly become one of the Sabres’ most relied-upon defenders. He’s averaging 23:36 minutes a night in all situations (second on the Sabres) and paces the team in even-strength ice time, playing nearly 21 minutes per night. The 20-year-old leads all rookie defensemen in both departments and sits fifth among all rearguards in even-strength ice time and 28th in all situations. Samuelsson has since returned to the lineup, but Power’s usage has remained steady.
Since teammate Rasmus Dahlin is given the plum minutes on the de-facto top pairing and the Sabres’ primary powerplay unit, it’s not surprising that Power lacks eye-popping scoring totals. His 10 points (no goals) in 25 games tie him for seventh among rookie skaters and represent a 33-point pace over 82 games. Power is by no means an offensive dynamo, but his production is respectable for a freshman at the position with the steepest learning curve.
What is most impressive about Power’s debut campaign thus far is that despite carrying a heavy workload for a rebuilding squad, his 5-on-5 possession numbers are pristine. Take a look at his on-ice results and how they compare to 165 qualified defensemen (minimum 250 minutes played at 5-on-5):
Assuming the threshold for top-pair quality is ranking 64th or better (32 NHL teams times two first-pair defensemen), Power grades out at or around that level in terms of the share of chances and chance quality the Sabres account for when he takes the ice. He’s a big body who doesn’t get caught out of position often, ranking 102nd out of 167 defensemen in minor penalties taken per-60-minutes at 5-on-5.
With his mouthwatering blend of size, poise, and discipline, Power looks to be the latest behemoth defenseman capable of impacting games at both ends of the ice and should be in the running for the Norris Trophy before long.
Beniers Already an Offensive Leader for the Kraken
Just as Power is performing at a level beyond his years, so has Beniers in functioning as the Kraken’s offensive compass. The freshman pivot leads all rookie skaters in goals (10) and points (21) while sitting third in assists (11).
Beniers hasn’t just relied on cushy powerplay assignments either, as his seven goals and 16 points at even strength both pace all first-year players. In terms of ice time among rookie forwards, only Noah Cates (Philadelphia Flyers) has seen more frequent usage than Beniers’ 17:04 per game, although the Kraken center is first by average even-strength deployment. As a result, his offensive rate stats at 5-on-5 position him favorably with the rest of the 2022-23 Calder class.
|Statistic (Per-60-Minutes)||Beniers||Rookie Rank|
Among Kraken skaters to have played at least 250 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Beniers ranks second on the team in goals per-60, third in assists, and first in points. Beniers has created most of his offense off the rush (leads the team in rush attempts per-60) and has drawn the third-highest rate of penalties on the team. His on-ice awareness has helped him wriggle into dangerous areas and force opponents to try and cheat while defending him, leading to the high rate of infractions they commit.
If there’s one negative to Beniers’ campaign (that also applies to Power), it’s that he’s seen very little time on the penalty kill, despite his reputation as a formidable two-way prospect. Now, ice time is not descriptive of a player’s impact in and of itself, but it’s interesting that head coach Dave Hakstol seems to not trust him while shorthanded (yet).
Still, Beniers has posted respectable results at 5-on-5, helping the Kraken control 53% of shots, 53.8% of expected goals, and 54.5% of high-danger chances when he takes the ice. Most young players struggle to pin down their defensive duties as they transition into the professional sphere, but Beniers looks to have taken full advantage of playing alongside responsible veterans such as Jaden Schwartz and Jared McCann.
Power is playing more difficult competition at the moment as he ranks in the top 100 of defensemen by proportion of 5-on-5 minutes played against other team’s top forwards according to ice time. In comparison, Beniers is around the top 150 of all forwards, seeing slightly more favorable deployment.
Beniers and Power the Clear 2022-23 Calder Trophy Frontrunners
Although there are several rookie candidates worthy of Calder buzz, Beniers and Power are quickly breaking away from the pack. The fact that they’re already among their team leaders in usage and holding their own bodes well for their future development.
Given the nature of Calder voting, it’ll be interesting to see which player the voters choose to honor with the year-end accolade. Offensive totals always draw the eye, especially when the player in question challenges for the team lead.
Ice time and difficulty of deployment is also a key factor, and the fact that Power is logging minutes at a rate that puts him in the same stratosphere as some of the league’s stars at the position only bolsters his case. What he accomplishes in those minutes is just as important, of course, but he’s controlled the run of play to a significant degree. I’d give Power the slight edge for now, but it’s very close.
More than half of the 2022-23 campaign remains, so there is plenty of time to sway the voting bloc before the end of the regular season. Regardless, both rookies are already delivering on their heady potential, giving Sabres and Kraken fans lots to look forward to as they continue their development into elite NHL talents.