SEATTLE KRAKEN

Beniers among many from 2022 Olympics making impact in NHL

Feb 21, 2024, 1:11 PM

Seattle Kraken Matty Beniers...

Matty Beniers celebrates a goal for the Seattle Kraken against Dallas on March 11, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Just two years ago, hockey at the 2022 Beijing Olympics went ahead without NHL players because of COVID-19 pandemic-related scheduling issues.

“Gosh, that feels like so long ago,” said Matthew Knies, who played for the United States. “It’s crazy.”

Crazy that since then, more than two dozen of those Olympic participants already have played in the NHL — including Knies and several others making a big impact. Seattle’s Matty Beniers, Minnesota’s Brock Faber and Ottawa’s Jake Sanderson were teammates of Knies, Canada has had a handful of prospects turn into professionals, from Buffalo’s Owen Power to Anaheim’s Mason McTavish, and Juraj Slafkovsky of Slovakia is growing into his game with Montreal after being the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft.

“It’s crazy how fast it goes once you’re there and in a couple years you’re playing in the NHL against the best players in the world,” said Slafkovsky, who led all scorers in Beijing with seven goals and was the tournament MVP. He and now-New Jersey defenseman Simon Nemec helped Slovakia win its first Olympic medal.

Slafkovsky is on a heater of late, with 11 points in seven games, pushing for a bigger role with the Canadiens before his 20th birthday. Captain Nick Suzuki is impressed, knowing Slafkovsky is just getting started 24 months after his Olympic coming-out party.

“Most of us were in junior (hockey) or in college, and he’s playing at the highest level against the top players,” Suzuki said.

The same can be said for Beniers, Power, Faber, Sanderson, McTavish and Knies, who made his debut late last season with Toronto and is considered a big piece of the Maple Leafs’ long-term future. A total of 29 players from the Beijing Olympics have been in the NHL from March 2022 until now, including 16 this season.

Philadelphia’s Noah Cates, one of the self-declared “older young guys” selected by USA Hockey, looks around at the rest of the league and takes pride in how many players from that tournament have reached the highest level of the sport so quickly.

“Some of those guys were freshmen and sophomores and kind of coming up (as) NHL prospects,” said Cates, who has helped the Flyers contend this year, one of the biggest surprises of the season. “It’s fun to see. It was obviously an awesome team, awesome experience and something I’ll never forget. Such a good group, as well.”

Such a good group despite a quarterfinal shootout loss to Slafkovsky and Slovakia that the Americans’ coach has even gotten back into the NHL. David Quinn, who had been fired from his first job with the New York Rangers, is now in his second season with the San Jose Sharks and believes Beijing allowed him to rediscover himself as a coach.

“I’ve always been a believer that your No. 1 job as a coach is to bring everybody together because everybody’s in it together and we all want the same thing,” Quinn said. “I kind of felt I got away from that my last year in New York, and that tournament gave me an opportunity to kind of get back to what I’ve been doing for 30 years and confirming the way I have approached it.”

Like Quinn, Eric Staal got back into the league after the Olympics, going from a training camp tryout with the Panthers the following fall to making a run with Florida to the Stanley Cup Final. Finland goaltender Harri Sateri, who backstopped his country to its first Olympic hockey gold medal, and Sweden counterpart Magnus Hellberg were also among those who made a return to the NHL.

A vast majority of those in Beijing became pros after that tournament.

Knies called it a good taste of what was to come in the NHL and a confidence boost once that day arrived. Faber learned a lot from his first chance to “play some grown-up hockey” against experienced adults.

“Being in college and world juniors, obviously it’s such a high level, but playing there it was just a whole different level of physicality and speed and skill and obviously every guy is just so smart,” Faber said. “It helped me take a step for my game, that’s for sure, and kind of helped me realize what it takes to play at the next level.”

The surreal nature of the event — confined to a bubble, tested daily amid China’s then-“Zero-COVID-19” policy and skating in empty or near-empty arenas — also made many of the players grow up quickly.

“Definitely pretty crazy getting tested every day and having masks on,” Beniers said. “Hopefully, a once-in-a-lifetime experience in a couple of different ways.”

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