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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports

Is Matt Benning ready to step into Edmonton’s defensive top four?

2016-17 Edmonton Oilers: No. 83 RD Matt Benning

Matt Benning surpassed expectations last season.

The former sixth-round pick of the Boston Bruins signed with the Oilers last August. It was a match which made sense on a lot of levels. Benning was from Edmonton originally, Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli was running the Bruins when Boston drafted him, and additionally the club had some opportunities open on the right side of its defensive depth chart.

Still, Benning could easily have impressed simply by spending most of the year in Bakersfield and playing well. Instead he came in and won a full-time NHL job almost immediately. Not only did he win the job, but he brought a multidimensional approach to each shift—he could move the puck, he could get into shooting lanes, and he had a surprising physical edge, especially for a guy listed at 6’1” and 195 pounds.

There was something for everyone to like in his play. Much has been made, in particular, of Benning’s performance against top-end opposition. According to the marvelous PuckIQ website, Benning spent 31 percent of his time against elite opposition (a significant amount for a primarily third-pairing player) and was in the green by both Corsi percentage and Dangerous Fenwick percentage (the latter adjusts for how dangerous any given shot is).

Because there was so much to like about Benning’s debut, those modest expectations of a year ago have completely disappeared, replaced with much higher aims for next season. What I wanted to do in this piece was look at how players with similar seasons at the same age had performed afterward, to give us an idea as to what kind of trajectory we can expect from Benning going forward.

I looked at all age 22 seasons by defencemen since the late 1990’s (when the NHL started recording ice time) using the wonderful Play Index tool on Hockey-Reference. Then I narrowed the list down using the following criteria:

  • a minimum of 40 games played (Benning played 62)
  • a points-per-game average between 0.18 and 0.30 (Benning recorded 0.24)
  • an average per-game ice-time between 14.6 and 18.6 minutes (Benning recorded 16.6 minutes per game)

Hockey-Reference does the first two functions for me, but the third has to be done manually, meaning I get to see all the defencemen who meet the first two criteria but haven’t been filtered for ice-time yet. What comes across immediately is how amazing NHL coaches tend to be at spotting the guys with real talent at this age.

Lots of players at 22 haven’t yet discovered their offence—Duncan Keith, Andrej Sekera and Ryan Suter all pop up on the initial list—but all of those guys clear 20 minutes per game. Keith, as a rookie in 2005-06, was playing more than 23 minutes nightly, even though he wouldn’t top 40 points until his fourth season.

What’s left after we adjust for ice-time are a lot of capable NHL players, but precious few of the impact variety:

Player CF% CF Rel OZ S% GP PTS TOI ATOI PTS/GP
Lukas Krajicek 67 16 1240 18.5 0.24
Christian Laflamme 73 14 1351 18.5 0.19
Petr Buzek 63 19 1159 18.4 0.30
David Tanabe 68 13 1237 18.2 0.19
Philip Larsen 51.0 -0.8 51.0 55 11 988 18.0 0.20
Luca Sbisa 48.4 -0.4 52.7 80 24 1434 17.9 0.30
Anton Babchuk 52 14 906 17.4 0.27
Michael Stone 50.5 -2.7 46.4 40 9 667 16.7 0.23
Aki Berg 70 16 1165 16.6 0.23
Matt Benning 52.3 2.0 56.7 62 15 1030 16.6 0.24
Yannick Weber 53.8 4.0 57.7 41 11 679 16.6 0.27
Milan Jurcina 51 11 840 16.5 0.22
Mike van Ryn 48 10 786 16.4 0.21
Deron Quint 60 13 972 16.2 0.22
Keaton Ellerby 51.4 1.4 51.7 54 12 869 16.1 0.22
Luke Schenn 46.9 -4.0 50.7 79 22 1267 16.0 0.28
Mathieu Dandenault 75 14 1138 15.2 0.19
Ladislav Smid 43.1 -7.2 49.9 60 11 897 15.0 0.18
Chris Campoli 51 14 756 14.8 0.27

There’s nothing wrong with being Aki Berg (over 600 career NHL games) or Michael Stone (343 and counting) but most of these guys had or are having careers as third-pairing defencemen, with occasional seasons inside an NHL top-four.

Of the players in the analytics era (2007-08 on), the one whose profile most closely resembles that of Benning is Yannick Weber. The minutes and point production are practically identical. Both were given a zone start push at 22, and both delivered with solid raw possession stats and relative numbers well above their team averages. Weber is now 28 and just under 350 games into an NHL career spent almost entirely in a third-pair role.

Yet it’s worth taking a moment to step back and look at the problems with this sorting method. It puts a lot of weight on ice-time, and not all ice-time is created equally. Edmonton was a pretty good team last year, with a lot of established options in the top-four; that drops Benning’s ice-time to a lesser amount than it would have been with an inferior team. Maybe Todd McLellan and his staff underrated the player; coaches are fallible and an ice-time filter puts a lot of weight on the judgment of one group of evaluators. I also can’t help noting that most of Benning’s ice-time comparables from the analytics era have shot metrics far worse than his, suggesting he may be underrated by this approach.

And yet, when one looks back over Benning’s season with the above list of comparable players in mind, some of the negatives stand out:

  • Benning was scratched for Game 1 of the playoffs in favour of Eric Gryba, and throughout the season was challenged for ice-time by a player most would classify as a No. 6 or even No. 7 defenceman
  • Benning’s totals with and without Andrej Sekera are stark. With Sekera, Benning had a 55% Corsi and 58% Dangerous Fenwick. Without Sekera, those totals are 51% and 50%. Given that he likely played weaker opposition away from Sekera, that’s concerning. Additionally, while Sekera also appeared to benefit from playing with Benning, away from Benning he a) almost certainly had a tougher zone start and b) played with Kris Russell, whose style of play produces lousy shot metrics.
  • There was no real in-season ramp-up in minutes for Benning. His late-season slump may well have been injury-related or even just a result of being used to a college schedule, but whatever the reason it’s hard to make the case he progressed dramatically throughout the year.

Having said all that, I personally like Benning a lot as a player, both by eye and by number. This very specific point of view doesn’t erase those other assessments, and has very real limitations that leave me less than totally sold on its results.

But it does give me pause, and remind me how many other young NHL’ers I’ve seen who delivered brilliantly as rookies but struggled to build on those performances, a list which most recently includes Brandon Davidson. Fortunately for the Oilers, there’s no need to make any decisions immediately. Benning’s contract has another year to run and they can wait and see what he does for an encore.

Bottom line: Benning blew past modest expectations and established himself as a full-time NHL’er in his rookie pro campaign. There’s no need to over-correct in 2017-18, setting the bar higher than he can reasonably be expected to attain. Winning an NHL job is a hard thing to do, but becoming a mainstay in the top four is even harder and we don’t know yet if Benning can make that second jump.

Previous year-end reviews:

  • OriginalPouzar

    I was adamant last year at this time that Benning needed at least a full year in the AHL if not more – that it was a depth signing for the future.

    Did Matty B. ever exceed expecations last year and was he ever a god-send – a free right shot D in his early 20s.

    In a perfect world, he starts on the 3rd pairing and earns his way up to the 2nd on merit, however, we don’t live in a perfect world and I would think he’s penciled in as the 2RD to start the season. Its not ideal but I’m very intrigued to see if he can run with this opportunity.

  • TKB2677

    Ideally, I would have preferred both Nurse and Benning to be the Oilers 3rd pair all year. The injury to Sekera means that they will have to spend time in the second pair. I say “THEY” because I think we will see both guys spending time in the second pair as they are both young dmen, it is extremely rare that the development curve of a young dman is straight and they all say that the most dmen don’t fully figure it out until that 250-300 game mark. Nurse has 115 games, Benning, 62 so they both have a long way to go. So I see them moving up and downs as they both have bumps in the road this season. So I can see how Russell’s ability to switch sides as being important and part of the reason why they wanted to resign him.

    I can also see a scenario where those 2 are still moving up and down in the from second pairing to the 3rd, which would be Russell’s second year because even if Nurse and Benning play all 82 games this season. Nurse will only have under 200 games and Benning around 140. If you are a legit contender, not many legit contenders have guys that inexperienced in their top 4 full time.

  • DiscoBiscuits

    It seems a bit tautological to ask, “Is he capable of handling the minutes that come with the job?” and then to answer, “He doesn’t already handle the minutes that come with the job, so no.”

  • One stat I like to use is how nervous I get watching a particular defensive player during the playoffs. Benning’s play had me nervous on many occasions. He and Nurse are still 3rd pairing guys for at least another year or two. I could see them deploying Benning on offensive zone starts, sure. I would prefer Gryba in the defensive zone and it wouldn’t bother me to see him on the 2nd pair with Russell to start the year. Benning is not ready yet.

      • Roberto

        As long as they were good in their own zone, I wouldn’t really care if Russell and Gryba couldn’t move the puck against top teir competition until Reggie is back

    • Roberto

      I doubt your comment will be a popular one, but I agree. Later in the Anaheim series it seemed like every shift he and Nurse were hemmed into the D zone, with a lot of running around and lucky to get off the ice without a goal against. I hadn’t noticed that all year until that series, which is good, but I agree they need to improve (which they should with age). Would Benning and Russel be ok as a 2nd pair until Sekera gets back, with Nurse and Gryba on the 3rd pair? The playoffs did show me that Nurse and Benning weren’t ready for prime time yet (Nurse hopefully breaks through soon), but I think the team can hold just fine until Reggie gets back. Is there any possibility that Fayne makes the team out of camp? He doesn’t overwhelm anyone with his play, but he was said to be a solid NHL defender when he was signed…. Which, with the Oilers forwards and Talbot, steady D is all that is really required.

    • JimmyV1965

      Totally agree with this. Not sure why there’s so much hype around him. Benning had a good year, but both he and Nurse had some tire fire moments in the playoffs. Nurse is bigger, stronger, faster and has more experience at a younger age, so I suspect he has the edge on the second pair.

  • GriffCity

    I don’t understand the fanfare regarding Benning. I do understand that he was a rookie last season and looked every bit of a rookie on many occasions. To suggest he is a top 4 defender on a playoff team is absurd. He does have some redeeming qualities and i’m not saying I hate the kid, I am saying however, that on multiple occasions he was overwhelmed and over-matched when playing against bigger, stronger top line opposition. I can recall several lost battles behind the net and in front of the net where Benning was simply ineffective at winning battles. The kid may develop into a top 4 guy one day but I have got to say he is not even close right now. I hold nothing personal at all against Benning, this is strictly a hockey opinion.

  • OilCan2

    Benning scored a big thumbs up by making the roster and performing well. I am confident he can take a step forward and fill the “Reggie Gap” this season.

    PC might have another rabbit to pull out of his hat; he has cap space and there may be another college guy.

  • Benning was a pleasant surprise last year, especially when one considers that Oilers got him for free. Free adds to the fun. This is not to take away from his skill, but Oilers are still in need of a top defenseman. A true stud to lead the back end.

    Oilers need the following: Backup goalie, help on right wing, and as mentioned, a stud defenseman. Oilers prospect pool is weak, but there is much good stuff going on, like McDavid and Talbot. If these two stay healthy and play like they can, the decade of darkness is truly in the rear view mirror.

    Oilers time to win is now.

    • Dwayne Roloson 35

      I think Klefbom will be that stud. He’s only like 180 games into his career. He wasn’t near the top of the league in shots and goals last year while only playing half the year as the #1 PP guy.

      He could get 45pts next year as the full time PP guy with extra minutes because of Sekera being injured.

  • madjam

    Unsure where to rate Benning seeing as Auvitu is signed and Fayne may be on squad till Sekara gets back . Who knows for sure if Bear , Mantha , Paigin or Jones might have a break thru this season with Sekara on the mend . Lots of competition for maybe just one temporary vacancy .

  • OldOilFan

    Benning has the [family] Pedigree. I think that fact -similar to Nolan Patrick’s- may explain the high trust level Matt seems to get from Oiler brass? At any rate, he didn’t let it inflate his ego or change his game. He’s solid, unspectacular. I hope he brings more of the same this season.

  • Randaman

    In my opinion, NO! I like Benning but he is not ready yet. One more year of third pairing duty with occasional second pairing and power play time is the appropriate development plan in my view. Have we not learned anything from our past mistakes?

  • Cowbell_Feva

    I agree with most people’s sentiment that Benning is not ready for top 4 NHL minutes. I am in fact leery of the fact that he has had an entire summer of expectations being on his plate, and feeling much more pressure than he did this time last summer. There aren’t many 6th round draft picks that come in and win a job in the NHL, and become everyday top 4 players the season after. I hope he can do it, but my gut tells me he regresses slightly.
    To my mind, the Oilers blueline can become their achilles heel. God forbid we ever lost Klefbom for any length of time, and we could go from a playoff contender to barely making the playoffs, or worse considering Sekera is out for a large chunk of the season already.

  • OilersDynasty

    “Benning’s totals with and without Andrej Sekera are stark. With Sekera, Benning had a 55% Corsi and 58% Dangerous Fenwick. Without Sekera, those totals are 51% and 50%. Given that he likely played weaker opposition away from Sekera, that’s concerning.”

    It shouldn’t be concerning. A rookie playing with a vet (ala Sekera) is much more likely to be better than playing on the 3rd pair with another rookie (ala Nurse). And even playing with Nurse he still put up over 50%. It would have been concerning if he was below 50%.

  • Serious Gord

    With sekera out there is little doubt benning will be pressed into second line duty.

    But there is also little doubt that he likely isn’t ready – and may never be ready for that on a permanent basis and certainly not in the playoffs.

    At sixty NHL games its almost a coin toss as to what he will become.

  • WillyWonka

    Oil should trade RNH for Kulak; get another top 3/4 defender of Benning’s quality and ilk, while shedding salary. that would be a sweet deal and meet needs for both sides