It’s important for any successful team to bring together players with a variety of skills, ones that build on each other’s strengths and cover for any weaknesses. This remains true when dealing with building a strong core of defencemen as well. Ideally, there should be players who contribute offensively and players whose focus is their defensive game. A strong team needs both to be successful as defencemen are often key on special teams.
As a second year defenceman for the University of Alberta Pandas, Abby Benning has been focused on defence. Like most Pandas defencemen, the 5’1” defender--who wears number 27--has seemed content to leave the scoring to the forwards. Present on the Pandas blue line for every game this season, it’s safe to say that Benning has created a place for herself among the Pandas defencemen, and that place has been in the primarily a defensive one. That is until the post-season at least…
Benning is a defender who is hard to move off the puck, strong along the boards, and has excellent footspeed. Despite her presence on the Pandas power play and penalty kill, Benning collected only three goals and six assists for a total of nine points in 28 games played over the course of the regular season. With just a 0.32 points per game, Benning would not have been the player expected to have an offensive surge in the post-season.
But she was.
Benning took only one shot on goal in each of the Pandas first two post season games against the University of Manitoba Bisons; she scored two goals, helping the Pandas to a sweep of the team that had eliminated them the year before. Benning also netted an assist in a two-to-one series loss against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in the Canada West Conference finals. Her three points in five games are the most of any defencemen in the Canada West Conference. Benning then added another assist in the U Sports Championship Tournament held in Napanee, Ontario.
She finished her post-season having scored two goals, assisted on two more goals, and played eight games, giving her 0.50 points per game. This is a notable jump for two reasons. The first is that mathematically, it is over a 50% jump in points-per-game from her regular season pace. If extrapolated to a full season, Benning would have managed 14 points instead of nine. Quite the jump!
The second is that Benning’s points production increased against the best competition in the conference and the country. During the playoffs, the lowest-ranked team the Pandas played was just one position below them in the Canada West conference. Benning increased her points in a situation where others were struggling against some of the toughest competition the Pandas faced all year. Logically, the expectation for the playoffs would have been for a lower points-per-game for Benning and not a significantly higher one.
Benning’s increased offensive output comes at the perfect time for the Panda’s program; her contributions helped to lift her team to a short-lived lead in in the gold medal game of the U Sports National Championship. Benning also had to contend with one of the most highly skilled offenses in any conference of U Sports hockey. Melodie Daoust is an Olympic gold medalist with Team Canada and just one of many skilled forwards on the McGill Martlets who the Pandas defence successfully defended against to capture their eighth national title.
Over the course of the season, Benning played with a variety of defensive partners as the Pandas worked to integrate their rookie defencemen into the lineup. The Pandas have experimented with defensive pairs to see which are the most effective and are best suited to whichever opponent they are currently playing. For example, a team like the UBC Thunderbirds required a different defensive strategy than a team like the University of Calgary Dinos.
Expectations on Benning will only increase as the Pandas lose fifth year defencemen Megan Eady. Eady played 26 regular season games and eight post season games for the Pandas. While she only managed six points in the regular season and none in the playoffs, she was a veteran presence on a young team. With her graduation, veteran presence will need to come from other players. Benning will be in her third year, making her one of the more experienced players and an obvious candidate for a leadership role on the Pandas backend.
Despite the seemingly low number of points Benning recorded, she is still the Pandas’ defenceman with the highest number of points in the regular season. With Benning joining just three other defencemen in making up the veteran core for the Pandas defence, she’ll be a player that many are watching. Among those veteran defenders, Cayle Dillon is the other player who might be expected to produce a higher number of points in the coming season. Dillon managed eight points in the regular season and two points in the post season. Like Benning, Dillon will be in her third year of eligibility, but unlike Benning, she played primarily with standout rookie Taylor Kezama over the last season.
Benning’s increased offensive production is a trend the Pandas will hope continues into next season and might even spread to other defenders. Increased points from the defence may give the Pandas an edge when playing teams they have struggled against in the last two season, namely the UBC Thunderbirds, Saskatchewan Huskies, and Manitoba Bisons. If the Pandas can return to spreading their scoring out over several players, they will be much more difficult to defend against. Currently, the Pandas offensive is centred primarily around the line of Alex Poznikoff, Autumn MacDougall, and Kennedy Ganser, making it easier to counter. However, a team with several diverse offensive threats will give the Pandas a better chance to make their way back to the U Sports National Championship next season. If that secondary scoring extends to the defence, it will create a team which is much harder to counter because the threat on goal could be coming from any player on the ice.
After all, a little extra offensive from the backend wouldn’t be unwelcome in the quest to win a ninth National Championship.