This is one part of a player-by-player Year in Review series we’ll be doing over the next couple months as we look back on the 2017-18 Edmonton Oilers season.
2017-18 Edmonton Oilers No. 83: Matt Benning
GP: 73 – G: 6, A: 15, PTS: 21
Matt Benning was an anomaly for the Oilers in 2016-17. He was signed as a college free agent in the off-season but got completely lost in the shadow of Drake Caggiula, who was one of the top NCAA free agents available in 2016. Despite the complete lack of hype, Benning cracked the Oilers and became an incredibly solid third-pairing defender for them for the entire season.
In 2017-18, the Oilers leaned on Benning to take another jump. The state of the Oilers’ blueline last season can entirely be viewed through the lens of Andrej Sekera’s injury. With their top defender missing the first half of the season, everyone had to take on a different role. Benning was one of the defenders tasked with taking on a bigger role, jumping from the third to the second pair.
Based on the numbers, Benning was much better in a lesser role. That said, he was far from a disaster when tasked with second-pairing minutes. It’s safe to say Benning held his own when elevated up the depth chart, though he was most effective when his role was reduced.
When looking at Benning’s ice time, Todd McLellan noticeably rolled him back in the new year. Before that, Benning was routinely playing over 20 minutes a night. In the first half of the season, Benning posted a decent 51.7 percent unblocked shot attempt differential at even strength. After the new year, though, Benning saw his usage reduced and he had the best unblocked shot differential among Oilers defenders at 52.4 percent. That doesn’t seem like a big jump on the surface, but Benning went from the fifth-best Oilers to defender to the top Oilers defender once he reverted back to a smaller role.
One thing I will mention with Benning, though, is that he’s somewhat of an enigma among Oilers fans. He seems to be one who represents the fancy stat divide as his underlying numbers suggest he’s playing very solid hockey while the eye test tends to remember his noticeable gaffes. Since his playstyle is fairly under-the-radar, it’s much easier to notice his mistakes than it is to notice the things he does well. He moves the puck up the ice nicely, joins the play at smart times, and holds the blueline well, generally stopping the other team’s forward from getting a high-quality chance in the offensive zone. Still, he’s prone to odd decisions and turnovers in the defensive zone, which many remember more than some nice outlet passes. Despite the gaffes and mistakes, the fact the Oilers routinely outshoot the other team when Benning is on the ice suggests he’s doing enough things right to be a player with positive value.
An important thing to remember with Benning is that he’s only 24 years old. He’s only been in the league for two years now and there’s certainly still room for improvement. I mean, I think very few of us around here would suggest that Darnell Nurse has reached his full potential as a player. Benning is only a year older than Nurse is.
At this point, I think it’s clear that the Oilers, at the very least, have themselves a solid third-pairing defender in Benning. Maybe he can make the jump and be more than that, but if he doesn’t, there’s still value in what he brings to the table. The key is simply to have a reasonable expectation for which role Benning can thrive in and to let him exist in that role. If McLellan can do that, Benning will continue to provide value to the team.
Benning is a righty defender who can compliment a variety of different lefty defenders. He can play a more conservative style alongside a Darnell Nurse, or he can activate in the play more alongside a Kris Russell. He might not be perfect and he isn’t flashy, but if the Oilers can get what they’ve gotten from Benning the previous two seasons, they’ll be getting more than enough value for his $1.9 million cap hit.
Also, since it’s August and we still have over a month to go until the season starts, everyone should watch and enjoy this absurd goal Benning scored last year: