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Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Oilers Need Matt Benning

Matt Benning has only played a total of 12:39 since November 16th. He played 2:55 against the San Jose Sharks on November 19th, before leaving the game after Evander Kane swung his stick to hit a puck and connected directly with the side of Benning’s head and his ear. He sat out for 10 days. He had some balance issues, connected to his ear, but they subsided in a few days. He felt good, passed all his off-ice tests and returned to play on December 1st against Vancouver. He played 9:44 that night, but had another freakish play which caused him to eventually leave the game — Josh Leivo’s shot hit him in the head late in the first period. He returned for the second period, but his final shift came with four minutes remaining in the frame.

He was placed in concussion protocol and hasn’t played since. Benning is 25 years young. He’s recently married and has his entire life ahead of him. He loves hockey, but he is acutely aware of the dangers of concussions. He has been very cautious about his return, as have the doctors, but the good news is that he hasn’t suffered any setbacks along the way. He hasn’t had two or three good days followed by a bad one. It has been all good days moving forward since the Leivo shot hit him in the head.

Benning received good news this past Monday. The doctors cleared him to take contact in practice. He joined the Oilers in Montreal and practiced on Wednesday. He will skate again today and it will be up to head coach Dave Tippett to decide when Benning returns to action.

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Tippett, and Benning, want the defender in a fast-paced practice with some battle drills so he can experience game-like conditions again.

I spoke to Benning very briefly after the Christmas break. He mentioned a conversation with his doctor about needing time to heal. “The doctor told me it takes a full month for your head to recover once you start feeling good.” It has been 41 days since he’s played, and he’s been feeling good for a month.

His return date will now depend on his cardio. He won’t play against Calgary, and maybe not even next week, but returning after the All-star break makes a lot of sense. So maybe only three more games without him.

The Oilers need him to solidify the third pair right defence spot right now. He has been an effective third pairing defender for the Oilers since entering the NHL at the start of the 2016/2017.

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Since joining the Oilers he is +29 at 5×5. His goals for-goals against is 149-120 in 3269 minutes.

Here is how the other D-men who played over 2000 minutes fared:
Kris Russell: -4 (153-157 in 4426 minutes).
Darnell Nurse: -4 (203-207 in 4645 min).
Andrej Sekera: -5 (74-79 in 2151 min).
Adam Larsson: -27 (172-199 in 4544 min).
Oscar Klefbom: -29 (169-198 in 4482 min).

I’m fully aware they play tougher competition, and that is a factor, but it doesn’t change that as a third pairing defender Benning has consistently found ways to be on the ice for more goals for than against at 5×5.

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Here are the other D-men who have played at least 450 minutes since Benning arrived.

Ethan Bear: -16 (49-65 in 1119 min). He was -10 as a rookie two years ago, and he has played in a top-four role mainly this season.
Eric Gryba: -4 (31-35 in 804 min).
Brandon Davidson: 0 (26-26 in 740 min).
Caleb Jones: -14 (20-34 in 562 min).
Kevin Gravel: -1 (16-17 in 466 min).

Ethan Bear has played in a top-four role, but the others who played in a predominantly in a third role never came close to similar numbers. as Benning. His results can’t be ignored. He is a steady, but not spectacular, third pairing defender. He is physical. He makes a good first pass. He has the hardest shot on the team, as proven by him winning the hardest shot competition regularly.

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It seems many want to focus more on the fact he isn’t an elite skater, than focus on the things he does well. I don’t fret about the fact he isn’t a top-four defender. There is nothing wrong with being a steady, productive third pairing D-man in the NHL.

If a forward is a solid third liner, he is applauded for being good in that role. Why aren’t third pairing D-men, who play more minutes than the average third line forward, given the same consideration?

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THIRD PAIR RIGHT SIDE…

Caleb Jones and Kris Russell are both better when they play the left side. In Benning’s absence, each has spent time on the right side in the third pair and the results haven’t been great. Jones is a rookie, and like most first year players, he still makes rookie mistakes, like his pinch that led to the Canadiens second goal last night. He only played a total of 7:46 last night and none in the final 23 minutes of the game.

Benning has more experience and poise than Jones, right now, and his return to the lineup will be a boost to the third pair. I’d rather see Jones develop in the NHL on his natural side. It is difficult enough playing in the NHL, but it is more difficult when you have to do it on your off-side.

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I also think it will help the top two pairs, because they won’t have to play as many minutes. Without a natural right-shot third-pairing defender, Jim Playfair has used the top guys more at 5×5. Not a lot, but Klefbom has played more since December 1st per game (19:28/game), than he did (18:48/game) with Benning in the lineup and Adam Larsson out prior to Benning’s injury in San Jose.

Benning was playing almost exclusively at 5×5 before his injuries. He was averaging 13:37/game and a total of 14:22 TOI/game. Benning’s return will allow Playfair to trust his third pair more, thus playing them a bit more at 5×5, and reducing the workload slightly for the top guys. Remember, Ethan Bear has never played this many NHL games in a season. If he plays a few shifts less per game at 5×5 down the stretch he should be fresher. The ripple effects of Benning returning could help more than just the third pair.

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Benning isn’t a dominant shutdown defender, but I believe he brings much more to the table than many fans and pundits think. I’ve seen people complain about him for years, despite him always finding ways to be a positive player when on the ice.

In his 229 NHL games Benning has been a positive in every stat. (CF is Corsi For-Against %. FF is Fenwick For-Against%. SF is Shots For-Against%, SC is Scoring Chances For-Against%, and GF is Goals For-Against — all at 5×5.)

His CF% is 50.3% (3040-3004). Oilers overall CF% is 49.1% (13174-13590).
His FF% is 51.3% (2289-2270). Oilers overall FF% is 49.7% (9857-9969).
His SF% is 50.3% (1655-1634). Oilers combined SF% is 49.4% (7137-7303).
His SCF% is 50.2% (1422-1410). Oilers overall SCF% is 49% (6273-6508).
His GF% is 55.3% (149-120). Oilers combined GF% is 48.4% (561-598)

The ultimate goal in hockey is to outscore your opponent, and the only time a player can impact that is when they are on the ice. When Benning is on the ice he has been a positive player, and that is impressive considering as a team the Oilers as a team are below 50% in every category.

Benning’s return will make the third pair right defence spot better, and that should, even in small percentage, make the Oilers a better team.

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