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What Johnny Beecher’s return will mean for Michigan hockey

Breaking down what the big forward brings to the table as he gets set to return in the coming weeks.

COLLEGE HOCKEY: FEB 01 Ohio State at Michigan
Despite an up-and-down first two seasons, Johnny Beecher has the speed and size to thrive for Michigan.
Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s hard for a first-round NHL Draft pick to fly somewhat under the radar in college — unless said draft pick is one of seven first-rounders on his own team. But after a couple up-and-down seasons in Ann Arbor, that’s the situation Johnny Beecher currently finds himself in.

Beecher was a highly-regarded prospect who played two seasons for the United States National Development Team Program. The Boston Bruins were intrigued enough by Beecher’s big body and skating speed to select him 30th overall in 2019, the season before Beecher joined the Michigan hockey team.

He had a solid debut season with the Wolverines, with nine goals and seven assists in 31 games. But a sophomore-year breakout never came.

The biggest culprit was a shoulder injury suffered during preseason drills in August. At Bruins Development Camp this summer, Beecher told reporters it was a “freak accident” — he got tangled up with a teammate going the opposite direction and came away with a torn labrum.

Beecher tried to play through his injury, but scored just eight points in 16 games while continuing to aggravate it. That led to a decision in February to shut him down for the season. He then got shoulder surgery in hopes he’d be ready for the fall.

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out quite that way. Beecher sustained a different upper-body injury sometime before Michigan’s season opener and hasn’t appeared in a game yet.

The Wolverines expect Beecher to return in two weeks, which would put him on pace to make his season debut at Penn State Nov. 11-12. But they’re so talented they don’t need to rush him back onto the ice to win in the short-term. Their priority will likely be ensuring he’s fully healthy when he does suit up again.

Because while his numbers in college haven’t jumped off the page, a fully-healthy Beecher can be a game-changer.

Here’s one example of what he brings. Watch here as he splits two Michigan State defenders, fakes the initial shot and lets one rip after wheeling around into the faceoff circle:

The thing to remember when watching highlight clips of Beecher is he’s 6-foot-3 and listed at 209 pounds. That makes him the tallest and heaviest forward on Michigan’s roster. But he’s also one of the Wolverines’ best pure skaters, with agility and coordination rarely seen in players his size.

Beecher normally plays as a center, and while he isn’t the pure passer or playmaker that, say, Thomas Bordeleau is, he can drive play simply by accelerating faster than everyone else. When he gets a chance to show off his speed and his shot, he’s very, very hard to stop.

Scouting reports on Beecher tend to highlight the physical parts of his game, for obvious reasons. He’s large, can fly and is aggressive — in 2019-20, he served the second-most penalty minutes on the Wolverines — and so far, those are the attributes that have most directly translated.

It’s those qualities that will be of most service to Michigan right now upon Beecher’s return. While Beecher’s first two seasons can be viewed in terms of underwhelming point production and a raw technical skill set, the Wolverines have plenty of other players who can generate offense. Beecher’s experience, his ability to go into the corners and use his body, and his ability to stand in front of the net, screen goalies and slam home garbage goals are things they have to search harder for.

While it would be interesting to see Beecher’s speed and physicality play on the wing alongside Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson or Thomas Bordeleau and Brendan Brisson, the Wolverines’ first two lines appear set for now. Instead, it’s likelier Beecher centers Michigan’s third line, where he’ll give the Wolverines better scoring balance and his relative lack of playmaking won’t hurt as much. His presence there is probably needed even more now in the wake of junior Eric Ciccolini’s season-ending lower-body injury.

Bruins director of player development Jamie Langenbrunner spoke about Beecher in August, saying that “time will tell” with him.

“His skating is obviously high-end,” Langenbrunner said. “We were actually laughing about it today. It almost looks like he’s not skating at times and, when you’re standing there, he’s actually going really, really fast. It’s so effortless.

“I think for him, whether he ends up as a second-line guy or third-line guy or a fourth-line guy will depend how quickly he gets those details in, how his consistency is night in and night out. That’ll make his coach happy and give him opportunity. His skating and his size are always going to be there and he’s learning how to do those pro habits.”

That might be part of the reason Beecher’s still in Ann Arbor instead of playing professionally right now — both he and his parent club know what he has to work on in order to make the jump from occasional contributor into a surefire top-six player. Beecher’s development in the subtler aspects of hockey will be intriguing to watch all season, and might determine how much more upside he, and his team, both have.