Back in the 2016 off-season, the Oilers made a couple of notable NCAA free agent signings. One of them, Drake Caggiula, was applauded by everyone as the gritty forward was coming off an MVP showing for North Dakota, while the other, Matt Benning, was met with a shrug.
Benning flew under the radar as an NCAA free agent, he flew under the radar during his strong, steady rookie season, and he continues to fly under the radar now as he’s consistently a useful player on the Oilers’ blueline.
Benning was actually drafted by the Boston Bruins in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, so he’s a prospect that Peter Chiarelli had his eye on for quite some time. He didn’t sign an entry-level deal with Boston and ultimately hit the open market where the general manager who originally drafted him inked him to a two-year deal.
In his rookie season, Benning cracked the team out of training camp as the Oilers lacked talent on the right side of the blueline. He slotted in on the team’s third pair and played very effectively with Darnell Nurse in a role featuring 16:37 minutes of ice time per night on average. He also chipped in with 15 points in 62 games. This year, Benning had a slight improvement in his offensive production, putting up 21 points in 73 games.
Offence isn’t really Benning’s game, so his boxcar stats don’t do him justice. While Benning is a fairly smooth player who can move the puck nicely, his calling card really is as a steady, clam presence who controls the gap nicely and isn’t afraid to throw the body. He rarely gets caught out of position and makes smart, sound plays, which makes up for the fact he doesn’t have game-breaking talent.
Where you can see Benning’s impact, I find, is in his underlying numbers. In his first two seasons in the league, Benning has a +1.8 Corsi For percentage in relation to his teammates. This is while spending a lot of time with Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom, two players who tend to take risks on the ice, whether it be to join the rush or pinch and throw a big hit. Obviously it isn’t a be all, end all piece of analysis, but Benning consistently drives a positive shot attempt differential when on the ice, which is certainly a positive sign.
According to Corsica, Benning’s relative shot attempt differential ranks 30th among all NHL defencemen who have played at least 1,000 even strength minutes over the past two seasons. It puts him in a strata with names like Matt Niskanen, Jaccob Slavin, and Brian Dumoulin, all players who fly under the radar because they don’t put up gaudy offensive numbers but clearly play an effective game on the blueline.
What does this mean for Benning’s next contract? He has three more controls years before he’s able to hit the open market, and given the fact he isn’t much of an offensive producer, I doubt he’ll command a long-term deal. I spoke about this when I talked about Darnell Nurse’s contract last week. Like with Nurse, it seems most likely the Oilers will go the bridge route and sign Benning for a couple of years in the $2.5 million ballpark, which is what you commonly see for these defenders who don’t produce much offensively.
Derek Forbort, a defensive defenceman who has roughly the same amount of points the past couple years as Benning does, inked a two-year deal worth $2,525,000 back in October. Other similar players who got longer term deals are Mark Pysyk, who got got a three-year deal worth $2,733,333, and Markus Nutivaara who got a four-year deal worth $2,700,000. Like I said, I’m guessing the Oilers go two years with Benning, but there’s certainly an argument to be made for a longer, const-controlled deal like the one Nutivaara was given by the Blue Jackets.