Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

RFA Profile: Is there still room on the blueline for Matt Benning?

After four seasons in the league, it’s safe to say that we know what Matt Benning is.

Peter Chiarelli signed Benning, one of his former draft picks from back in his Boston Bruins days, as a college free agent in 2016. While Drake Caggiula was the big college addition that summer, the Benning signing was met with little fanfare.

He would end up cracking the team’s blueline out of camp and put together a very solid rookie season, averaging 16:37 minutes-per-game and putting up 15 points across 63 games.

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There was hope after that nice rookie season that Benning could take another step forward and turn into that much-coveted top-four, right-handed defenceman, but that hasn’t happened. Whenever Benning has been moved up the depth chart to take on more minutes or to face more difficult competition, he’s struggled with the task.

That isn’t a knock on Benning. He just is what he is — a thoroughly solid, two-way, third-pairing defenceman.

Throughout the entirety of Benning’s NHL career, he’s managed to outscore his opponents when he’s on the ice. Most recently, in 2019-20, he had the second-best goal differential at even-strength on the Oilers (23-to-16) behind only Kailer Yamamoto. For his career, he owns an impressive 158-to-129 goal differential.

This fall, Benning is a restricted free agent. He’s arbitration-eligible and has only one more year left before he can test the open market as an unrestricted free agent. If he’s simply issued a qualifying offer, he’ll end up with a price tag slightly over $2 million for 2020-21.

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He’s coming off of a two-year deal that paid him $1.9 million annually, so it’s difficult to imagine Benning earning anything less than that on his next deal. He would have to agree to a hometown discount in order for that to happen.

Considering the team’s cap crunch, can the Oilers afford to keep Benning around given the role he plays? This isn’t an easy question to answer.

As of right now, Edmonton’s big-league, right-handed defenders are Adam Larsson, Ethan Bear, and Benning. Behind them is top prospect Evan Bouchard who, after a strong season with the Bakersfield Condors, appears ready for NHL duty.

The Oilers obviously aren’t going to have Bouchard come in and out of the press box next season. If he’s up, he’s surely going to be an everyday player. But if Bouchard is manning the team’s third pairing, that would mean Benning becomes a seventh defender with a ~$2 million price tag.

If Holland can find a taker for Kris Russell, who has one more year at $4 million left on his deal, that obviously becomes a lot more palatable. But that’s far from a guarantee.

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The other thing to consider with Benning is that unlike Russell, who carries a hefty cap hit and a no-trade clause, he has legitimate value around the league in a trade. Teams are always looking for right-shot defenders and Benning is a fairly cheap option. Moving him out in a trade could help Holland recoup some of the draft assets he gave away at the trade deadline or it could even help him find the third-line centre upgrade that the team covets.

Trading Benning also certainly has its risks. There’s no guarantee that Bouchard will hit the ground running on the team’s third-pairing. There’s also no guarantee that Ethan Bear will be as good as he was last year. Also, you’re an Adam Larsson injury away from having a sophomore and a rookie or off-side Russell making up the right side of your top-four.

All told, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to Matt Benning the restricted free agent.

The $2 million he’ll command in his final year of control is probably a bit rich for a sixth/seventh defenceman, but it’s far from being an albatross given how important it is to have insurance on the blueline. That said, he’ll also be able to bring back something much more worthwhile than Kris Russell in a trade, so there’s also a benefit to using him as a chip to fill another hole.

At this point, it looks like Benning’s future could go either way.