Many Edmonton Oilers fans expected the team to make a big splash this summer, in acquiring a defenseman who can play right defense on the team’s top-four. General Manager Peter Chiarelli and Oilers’ management had other plans in mind.
They re-signed Kris Russell to a 4-year, $16 million contract, and traded away long time Edmonton Oiler, Jordan Eberle to the New York Islanders. Aside from those moves, and a few more free agent signings, the Oilers did not add another defenseman to their top four.
If we take a look at the team’s current depth chart, the projected line-up on defense looks like this:
Oscar Klefbom – Adam Larsson
Andrej Sekera (IR) – Kris Russell
Darnell Nurse – Matt Benning/Eric Gryba
The line-up is identical to last season. However, Andrej Sekera suffered a torn ACL during the Stanley Cup playoffs and is expected to be out for the first few months of the 2016-17 season.
It looks like there will be an opening on the top-four, and it seems like the Oilers believe 23-year-old Matt Benning can step into that role as early as next October.
It may appear like a bit of a stretch for a player who has only played 62 NHL regular season games in the NHL. All appearances from last season indicate that there is good reason to believe that Matt Benning can excel in a top-four role next year, and be an important member of the Oilers’ defensive corps going forward.
Where exactly did Matt Benning come from?
Benning comes from a family with serious NHL pedigree. His father is former NHL defenseman, Brian Benning, who played 568 in the NHL. Meanwhile, his uncle is Jim Benning, who played 610 games in the NHL, and is currently the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks.
Matt played his junior hockey in the Alberta Junior Hockey league, with the Spruce Grove Saints for two seasons. He was then drafted by the Boston Bruins, in the 6th round of the 2012 NHL entry draft.
Before moving on to NCAA hockey, he also played one season in the United States Hockey League, for the Dubuque Fighting Saints. After that, he went on to play three seasons at Northeastern University.
Due to an influx of prospects coming into the Boston Bruins’ organization, Benning was never offered an entry-level deal, which made him an unsigned free agent in the summer of 2016.
At that time, Edmonton Oilers General Manager Peter Chiarelli saw an opportunity and signed the same player he drafted four years ago, to a two-year entry level deal, on August 27, 2016.
After that, everything escalated rather quickly for Matt Benning and his NHL career.
Early career analysis: Matt Benning
Like many, I knew very little about Matt Benning coming in the 2016-2017 season. I thought he was a depth signing, that would need to see some time in the American Hockey League.
Surprisingly, he made the Edmonton Oilers roster on the opening night of the 2016-2017 season. Although he was sent down to the minors for a brief stint, Benning played his first NHL game on November 1st, 2016, against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Once he was injected into the Oilers’ line-up, he never looked out of place, and as the season wore on, people began to see why he made the team out of training camp.
Overall, Benning had a spectacular rookie season, he crushed expectations and was probably the biggest surprise on the Oilers’ blue line last season. The Oilers gave him sheltered minutes in a third pairing role mostly with Darnell Nurse, and he made a positive impact on the team.
In 62 regular season games for the Oilers, Benning averaged over 16 minutes of ice-time per game, scored three goals and 12 assists for 15 points, had 111 hits and 64 blocks. Overall, that is a solid contribution from a rookie NHL defenseman, playing in a depth-pairing role.
Matt Benning style of play
After watching almost every Edmonton Oilers games last season. It is fair to say that, Matt Benning does not play an overly flashy game, and doesn’t have one skillset that particularly jumps out at you
Anyhow, if you watch him close enough, you will see a very solid shutdown defender, who can skate, move the puck, and can chip in a bit offensively. He is a very cerebral defender who makes good decisions with the puck and is not afraid to get into the dirty areas to break down opponent’s cycles.
His ability to use his stick and positioning to contain bigger players is also very impressive. He is not the biggest guy, but he makes up for it with his hockey IQ and ability to anticipate plays.
One thing that surprised me the most about Benning’s game is his physicality. He is not the biggest defenseman, at 6′-1″ and 195 lbs, but he is capable of delivering bone-crushing open ice hits.
As an Oilers fan, seeing Benning “lower the boom” on opposing players has been therapeutic. It is nice to finally have someone on the Oilers’ blueline who doesn’t mind throwing his weight around from time to time. Especially, after seeing too many defenders in the past years, who solely relied on their stick-checking abilities to prevent opponents from scoring.
Improvements to his game
It is fair to say that he was not a high -draft pick, and nobody expects Benning to be a number one defenseman in the NHL.
With that mind, there are a few improvement Benning can possibly make to his game, to help him take it to the next level.
One thing he could add to his arsenal, is a better shot from the blueline. From what I have seen last season, he doesn’t own an overly powerful shot that can serve as a scoring threat from the point.
As a result, many opposing teams sag off of him from time to time and even dares him to shoot it occasionally.
Improving this aspect of the game will help him discover his scoring potential, and make him a more dynamic player in the offensive zone.
Embrace his puck moving abilities:
Although he is a defensive minded defenseman, Benning is a rather mobile defenseman who handles the puck well.
Despite being a decent passer, he would become an even more effective player, if he is able to embrace his puck moving abilities a bit more.
It will open up more offensive opportunities for his teammates and himself, and make him a more well-rounded two-way defender.
Going forward, I project Matt Benning to be an important part of the Oilers defense, which will likely include, Adam Larsson, Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse as well.
In a lot of ways, Oilers’ management probably sees potential in him to become a solid top-four defenseman, which is why they elected not to add another top-four defenseman this summer.
Benning still has a lot of untapped potential in his offensive game, and in the next couple of years, we will see if he is able to add that to his game.
He had 56 points in 110 games in his college career, and put up a decent 15 points in 62 games, as an NHL rookie with limited ice-time. No question, I can see Benning become a 20-35 point player if he reaches his potential.
At only 23-years-old and more time to develop, he can definitely become a top four defenseman. A top pairing defenseman might be a stretch, but given his ability to develop so quickly in the NHL, it’s never out of the question.
Overall, Benning was a brilliant signing by the Edmonton Oilers and has already shown enough promise in his game to warrant a bright future on the team’s blueline.
Not bad for a player who was taken in the 6th round, and was even not offered a contract by the team that drafted him.
What do you think of Matt Benning’s NHL career so far? Do you think he can be important for the Edmonton Oilers moving forward? Let us know in the comments section below, and participate in the poll.
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