In the 2015/16 season, the right side of the Oilers defence was manned by the likes of Mark Fayne, Justin Shultz, Eric Gryba and Brandon Davidson so, with good reason, in the subsequent off-season, Peter Chiarelli revamped the entire right side. In connection therewith, Chiarelli acquired each of the following:
- Adam Larsson (via trade)
- Kris Russell (via signing)
- Matt Benning (via signing)
While Kris Russell is a left shot player that is materially better when playing the left side, he did spend the vast majority of the 2016/17 season (and the 2017/18 season) playing the right side and, given how fantastic Andrei Sekera was during the 2016/17 season, Sekera and Russell formed a fairly efficient 2nd pairing that often served as a 1B to the 1A duo of Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson.
The Matt Benning signing flew a little bit under the radar and was in the shadows of the more lauded Drake Caggulia signing. Both Benning and Caggulia signed as college free agents in the off-season. As it turns out, two full seasons after the signings, the Matt Benning acquisition has proven to be much more beneficial for the team.
Unlike Caggulia, Benning was previously drafted, by Peter Chiarelli himself while general manager of the Boston Bruins in the 6th round of the 2012 entry draft. Benning never signed with the Bruins and, after three NCAA seasons at Northeastern, Benning became an unrestricted free agent and Chiarelli finally got him under contract, this time with the Edmonton Oilers.
Personally, at the time of the signing, I was adamant that Benning would need significant AHL development time before he ever played an NHL game (if he was ever going to). Well, as it turns out, I was wrong. While Benning was assigned to the AHL at the end of training camp, his AHL career lasted exactly 2 games as he was called up to replace an injured Mark Fayne in a series of transactions that essentially marked the end of Mark Fayne’s NHL career and the beginning of Benning’s NHL career.
My summary of Benning’s NHL career will be based mostly on the eye-test as opposed to the numbers as I don’t think the numbers really do a player like Benning justice. The following scouting report on Benning is bang on with how I viewed his season as a rookie pro with the Oilers:
“• Kirk Luedeke, The Scouting Post: A defense-first guy who plays bigger and with an impressive physical edge for possessing pretty average size at 6-foot, 200+ pounds. Benning isn’t going to wow you- he’s a consistent presence if nothing else. He’s not flashy or dynamic but is smart and rugged. He fills lanes quickly, gaps up well, and will pop you good if there are any thoughts of trying to cut to the middle- keep the head on a swivel when Benning is out there for the Huskies. His father, Brian, played more than 500 NHL games as a defenseman and tallied nearly 300 career points, so while his career wasn’t all that long (he retired at age 29), he was an impact two-way threat/effective puck-mover who was at his best in the late 1980s with the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings. Matt Benning is a chip off the old block- he’s got nice vision, the ability to make an effective first pass and a willingness to join the rush, not to mention the little bit of nasty he brings to bear during the trench battles along the walls and in front of the net.”
In the 2016/17 season, Benning played on the 3rd pairing for much of the year with Darnell Nurse but was also asked to play material minutes up the lineup with Andrei Sekera when Kris Russell was out with injury. Overall, Benning played 15 min per game at even strength and added about 1:30 on combined special teams . He did not play a lot on the power play or the penalty kill.
Suffice to say, for a rookie pro, Benning did very well. As per the scouting report above, he wasn’t flashy but he was calm with the puck and made smart and quick decisions in transition. He had decent gap control and defensive zone awareness. He showed a level of physicality that was more than I expected. Benning plays bigger on the ice than he looks and it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for him to lay out an oncoming forward with a solid open-ice hit. Benning did produce 3 goals and 15 points in his 62 games, good production for a mainly third pairing d-man and, in limited time, he was quite effective on the power play – in 25 minutes, he had a goal and 2 assists and produced at a P/60 rate of over 7. Of course, that sample size is too small to put any real stock in.
Unfortunately, Benning’s season took a negative turn on February 3 when he was hit by Viktor Stalberg as he suffered a concussion and missed the better part of 20 games. When Benning did return, his game was not the same. He wasn’t as calm with the puck, as efficient in transition or as solid in the defensive zone. This wasn’t all that unexpected as it often takes a player a little while to get their game back after missing time with a concussion.
Unfortunately, from the eye test, the somewhat struggling Matt Benning that finished the 2016/17 season also started the 2017/18. The calm, cool and efficient puck moving defender that Oilers fans saw in the first half of the 2016/17 season was still missing.
The Oilers started the season, of course, without Andrei Sekera and Benning was tasked with moving up the lineup to play on the 2nd pairing with Kris Russell. I was confident that Benning was ready to take the next step but the pairing struggled in lockstep with the team. The team got off to a slow start, injuries started to take effect, the goaltending was poor and the team just never seemed to get on track all season. Matt Benning followed the team in that regard. While he wasn’t terrible, in my opinion, he was prone to bad decisions, missed defensive assignments and simply wasn’t able to provide the calm presence that he did to start his career.
Benning played over 500 minutes with Klefbom, generally on the 2nd pairing. Klefbom himself was playing with an injured shoulder and the pairing struggled both by the eye test as well as by the stats as their goal share together was around 47%. Benning’s second most common partner was Andrei Sekera, another player that was not at 100% as he was coming off major knee surgery and no training camp. In 200 minutes together, the pairing got absolutely killed with a 25% goal share.
Interestingly enough, in almost 400 minutes without either of the injured Klefbom or Sekera, mostly third pairing minutes, Benning had positive possession metrics and a phenomenal goal share of over 67%.
What the eye test and the numbers show me is that, when Benning is given 3rd pairing minutes, he looks and shows very well. He is a very good 3rd pairing d-man. Unfortunately, Benning has been asked to fill in for injuries up the lineup in both his professional seasons and has simply not fared nearly as well.
As it turns out, the Oilers still have a hole at right defense on the 2nd pairing and, even prior to the news of Sekera’s new major injury, I believe the plan was for Benning to start the season on the 2nd pairing. This is the exact same plan that failed last year, however, unfortunately, the Oilers do not have any other options.
With that said, Matt Benning is now 24 years old and has another year of development and maturity. He is closer to entering his prime as a defenseman and is a year further removed from the concussion. I think he will be more prepared for that 2nd pairing role and, frankly, being penciled in to play with an ever improving Darnell Nurse, as opposed to an injured Oscar Klefbom or struggling Kris Russell, may lead to success.
For me, Benning being able to grab the opportunity on the 2nd pairing and run with it is a key to the Oilers success for this coming season as it would fill a big hole on the roster and allow Kris Russell to play in the third pairing.
I’m cheering for you Matt!