College free agents are like a box of chocolates: You never know what you are going to get. Oilers fans were thrilled when Justin Schultz signed back in the day, but enthusiasm was tempered on the day Edmonton signed Matt Benning. Why are things working out differently for Benning? Well, early days, so sweeping statements are unwise, but let’s have a look at the numbers.
HANDLING—TIME ON ICE
The Oilers under Todd McLellan have taken a slow, measured approach to TOI for Matt Benning. In spite of outstanding numbers—boxcars and fancy—McLellan has been using his rookie in a specific role. We can show the differences in handling (as rookies) between Justin Schultz and Benning with TOI disciplines:
- Even strength per game: Benning 15:27 per game; Schultz 17:39 per game.
- Power play per game: Benning 0:30 per game; Schultz 3:12 per game.
- Penalty kill per game: Benning 0:43 per game; Schultz 0:34 per game.
- Total minutes per game: Benning 16:41 per game; Schultz 21:26 per game.
Just a little shy of five minutes a game, with two EV shaved off for the 2016-17 rookie. Benning is being asked to play less, thus getting an opportunity to find his footing in the NHL game. Benning’s offensive acumen may be useful on the power play in the future. Todd McLellan hasn’t used him much, allowing Benning to focus on the 5×5 portion of his duties.
USAGE—PARTNERS AND LINEMATES
Another area we can examine is defensive partners and linemates. Is Todd McLellan sheltering Benning? Let’s start by going back to Justin Schultz and his rookie season:
- Most common partners 5×5: NIck Schultz (545 minutes), Ryan Whitney (120 minutes).
- Most common linemates 5×5: Jordan Eberle (302 minutes), RNH (268 minutes), Taylor Hall (260 minutes)
So, if Justin Schultz played 33 percent of his rookie 5×5 minutes with Taylor Hall, we can reasonably argue he was in a prominent role and not being sheltered. Fair? Let’s look at Benning:
- Most common partners 5×5: Andrej Sekera (254 minutes), Brandon Davidson (135 minutes).
- Most common linemates 5×5: Connor McDavid (221 minutes), Leon Draisaitl (202 minutes), Milan Lucic (196 minutes).
So, if Matt Benning played 33 percent of his rookie 5×5 minutes with Connor McDavid, we can reasonably argue he was in a prominent role. Fair again?
Although not yet publicly available, the Woodmoney metric measures quality of competition, and puts opponents into levels (elite, mid, low) of quality. Benning’s usage against elites has increased over the season, and the latest reading shows the following:
- Elite 5×5: 226:52
- Mid 5×5: 230:57
- Low 5×5: 212:35
That elite number has been climbing over the season, and is a really positive arrow for this player.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
The Oilers have stripped away a lot of the workload Justin Schultz faced, and given Matt Benning a real chance to flourish as a rookie. He has done it, and now the team appears to be adding more difficult minutes, and may add more power-play time in the future.
Justin Schultz clearly had talent, but could never step forward as an Oiler. He seemed to be repeating the mistakes of past seasons and only a trade to Pittsburgh turned his fortunes in a positive way. What did the Penguins do with Schultz? Stripped down the number of minutes, took away heavy responsibility, and had Schultz flourish at that level.
Seems to be working for Schultz, and the same kind of handling is working for Edmonton with young Matt Benning.
Who should we blame? I tend to think the answer is no one. Edmonton was in a tough spot when Schultz arrived, and can afford to be a little more patient with Benning. If Ralph Krueger had more veteran and able options in 2012-13, the story of Schultz as an Oiler may have had a far happier ending. As it is, Matt Benning is shining like a diamond, and appears ready to carry more of the load.