November 24 2016 12:39PM
Of all the off-season acquisitions that Peter Chiarelli made this summer, I didn’t pay much mind to Matthew Benning. I figured he would be AHL bound and a call-up option down the road when injury was bound to strike. I did not give him the credit he was due.
Chiarelli was clearly familiar with the player. Benning was a former sixth round pick (175th) of the Boston Bruins in 2012. He went from the AJHL to the USHL for a year, then from the USHL to Northeastern University in Boston. This is a prospect that the former Bruin general manager obviously had kept tabs on and when Benning became a free agent it made sense to make an offer from the Oilers.
Benning checks off a lot of boxes for the Oilers. He’s a good Edmonton boy. Well, actually he’s listed as St. Albert born in some places and Edmonton in others, but we'll give him a pass on that. His family is from North Edmonton (Delwood) and both his father and his uncle played in the NHL. His father Brian even played 18 games for the Oilers (the team traded Josef Beranek and Greg Hawgood for him), something Matt is on pace to blow right past.
More than just being from the area and likely to relish playing for the team, Benning is a right-shooting defender who was ready for the professional game at 22-years-old. Still, not being overly big (just 6' feet tall) or overly heavy (just 202 pounds), and not being overly offensive (19 points in 41 games in his final season with the Huskies), it was pretty easy to overlook the player based on the extremely small public information.
Chiarelli trusted his read on the player, though, and the Oilers are benefitting pretty well from it today.
Matt Benning has been impressive since joining the Oilers on the third pair with Darnell Nurse. There have been shaky moments, but the more he has played the more confident he has appeared. As an NHL rookie I expect there will be more tense moments in the future, but that’s normal. It’s rare for a defender to step into the NHL and play without the telltale signs of inexperience.
What’s nice for Benning is that by eye and by number he is raising eyebrows. He’s shown some comfort level playing with the puck on his stick. He’s even a potential PP option for the team. Benning averages 59 seconds of PP time per game so far. If he continues to assert himself, that could climb. In the last five or six games his physicality has been more prevalent as well, culminating in that wicked hit on Nate MacKinnon.
As someone who spends a fair amount of time looking at the underlying stats -- the shot attempt metrics, the PDO, the zone starts, and anything else I can get my hands on that isn’t immediately available and hard to keep track of by only watching the game once -- what I love to see is Matt Benning at the top of the list for some important statistical categories.
For Oiler defenders who have played at least 100 minutes 5v5, this is where Benning ranks on the club*:
Points per 60: 1st
Goals For Percentage: 1st
Corsi For Percentage: 1st
Corsi For Relative to Teammates: 1st
Fenwick For Percentage: 2nd
Shots For Percentage: 3rd
Scoring Chance For Percentage: 1st
One other very interesting stat for me has been average shot distance. It’s something that OilersNerdAlert of Twitter and the Oilogosphere was able to track down and tabulate. I’ll leave his tweets below.
It’s very interesting to note that when Benning is on the ice, so far, the opposition has been shooting from further away from the net. It’s also nice to see that this isn’t just happening when Benning is on the ice with Nurse but also when he’s on the ice with Sekera or Klefbom.
These are early days, my friends, and before we get too swept up with Benning being first in so many categories, let’s also acknowledge that he is largely playing third pairing minutes. He’s averaging just over 16 minutes a night in ice-time, getting lots of starts in the offensive zone (by far the highest percentage on the blueline), and is generally being sheltered by two pairings ahead of him on the depth chart. He’s also riding some sky-high percentages.
I cannot overstate that Benning’s 109.3 PDO will drop back down to normal levels eventually. Based on that number, there’s no question why Benning is passing our eye tests with flying colors. He’s positively affecting the shot attempt numbers and also riding great percentages. The good news is that it looks like it’s the goals for that will fall down more than the goals against will rise, based on the indicators we have.
That said, all you can ask from a player when you shelter them is that they perform in those circumstances. That’s exactly what Benning has done. There will be times in the future when the staff or the roster is unable to keep Benning out of the tough situations, that’s why they have Gryba and underscores the importance of depth. For now, Matt Benning has been a positive addition to the blueline and a player to keep an eye on as he develops and his responsibilities are expanded.