Meet Matt Benning

Jason Gregor
7 years ago
In late August the Oilers signed free agent defenceman Matt Benning. The 22-year-old rearguard grew up in St. Albert and was a diehard Oilers fan. His father, Brian, played 616 NHL regular season and playoff games including a short stint with the Oilers.
The younger Benning was originally drafted 175th overall by the Boston Bruins in 2012, but after leaving Northeastern University this spring, he didn’t sign with the Bruins and became a free agent.
He is 6’2 and 202, and most importantly for the Oilers he shoots right.
I spoke with Benning last week about signing with his childhood team, what areas of his game translate well to the NHL and why he choose Edmonton.
Gregor:  Peter Chiarelli was the GM in
Boston when they drafted you and now he’s the GM who signed you. Did the
relationship from drafting you play into your decision?
Matt Benning: Yeah, I think so. He knew me
as a player in Boston, he had seen me over the past four years since he drafted
me in 2012 at the development camp point and he’s seen how I’ve progressed. The
relationship that we’ve had in Boston, and now that he’s moved on [to Edmonton]
and we rekindled [that relationship] this past Saturday. So it was definitely a
part of my decision and I’m excited for it.
It’s a unique situation to be an unrestricted free agent so young and talk to a
lot of teams when you’ve never played an NHL game. Was it ever overwhelming for
you or was it just super exciting to have numerous teams interested in
acquiring your services at such a young age?
Yeah it was definitely exciting. I mean as a young kid you grow up
wanting to play in the NHL and it’s just one step closer. I made the decision to
leave school after three years. I just wanted something to happen and I wanted
to go somewhere where I felt the most comfortable and where I would have a good
opportunity. I’m just really excited about the opportunity [to play in
Edmonton] and the people that I’ve met so far after signing with Edmonton on
Why was now the right time? Some players will stay for that fourth year and
others leave early. Why was now the right time for you?
Benning: Every summer I stayed and took two
classes each summer, so I’m actually ahead. I only need three classes to
graduate. That was definitely a big part of my decision. On the hockey side of
it I felt that I was ready, I felt like I was ready for that challenge of
trying pro hockey and just that one extra year, I thought that there would be
better opportunities to play pro.
Matt, last I saw you was when you were playing for the Spruce Grove Saints in
the AJHL then you went on and played one year in the USHL before going on to
Northeastern University. How different of a player are you now? What area of
your game have you improved on the most in the last four seasons?
Benning: Definitely my fitness level. When
I was in Spruce Grove I was not in as good of shape. A you know today the
professional players are in really good shape. I think that that was why I
chose to go to school. Obviously you only play thirty-four games in the season
as compared to the WHL season where you’re almost playing double that amount. I
just saw it as an opportunity to go into college and get an education and
develop my game that needed it and that was the conditioning side and getting stronger
and working on my skills.
When you say conditioning, are you a late bloomer physically, does that run in
the Benning genetics? I know some people really don’t get their strength until
they are twenty. Was that how it was for you?
Benning: Yeah, I definitely think so. I
still struggle to grow facial hair and that kind of thing, but definitely the
strength side of it and then getting into better shape. I was a lot heavier in Spruce
Grove than I am now and it’s a lot easier for me and I’ve attributed that to
I’ve improved my footspeed and my skating and I saw that as an area where I
needed to improve.
 You shoot right and I’m sure you looked
at the Edmonton Oilers’ depth shot and saw they don’t have many right shot
defensemen. Right now in the NHL a lot of coaches and GMs like to have
righty-lefty combos. There seems to be a shortage of right shot defenders around
the league. Did you look at the lack of right shooting D-men in when you spoke
to the Oilers?
Benning : Yeah for sure. In the past few
years they’ve played with lefties on the right side and that kind of thing so
it’s a performance based sport. You still have to go in and perform, but I saw
it as an opportunity where I could go in as a right-handed shot and do well. So
that was definitely part of it. Part of it was Pete Chiarelli and our
relationship and that kind of thing. Another part of it was being an Edmonton
born kid and growing up watching the Oilers and being there and cheering for
them. So that was definitely a big part of it too.
The Benning family is well known in the hockey world. Your dad Brian, most everyone
in Edmonton knows him. It’s got to be a thrill for you being an Edmonton kid,
I’m guessing you were an Oiler fan growing up and you were in those early
teenage years when the Oilers went to the cup in 2006 and sadly like a lot of
Oiler fans it’s been a decade of darkness since then. Can you put into words
what it means to be an Edmonton kid who signs with the team he grew up cheering
Benning : Definitely something that I have
grown up and kind of dreamed about. I was in the stands in 2006 when they made
that playoff run and game six against Detroit. That feeling at that point it
was just amazing, and I knew I always wanted to play for the Oilers. The fans
are so loyal and so good and just growing up in Edmonton, it’s pretty surreal.
Matt, for Oiler fans who haven’t seen you played, who maybe don’t follow the NCAA,
what is your best attribute on the ice as a defenseman?
Benning: I think defending growing up my
dad always told me that ‘You have to compete in the D zone, you’re a defenseman
for a reason,’ so just defending and competing and playing with a little bit of
an edge. I think that my first pass is something that I’ve done a pretty good
job at, at all levels. Hopefully I can take that to the next level.
You were in Edmonton last summer when the Oilers won the lottery and landed
Connor MCDavid and now you have a chance to be his teammate. From the brief few
games you watched last year, what was your impression of #97?
Benning: Obviously he’s a really good
player. I played against [Jack] Eichel a few years ago and he was a really
special player and obviously you know the numbers and stuff like that. McDavid
has such high skill and I just hope that I can get in there and just give him
the puck because we all know what he can do with it. He’s a really good player,
a once in a lifetime player, and I’m just excited to hopefully get to know him
and hopefully pass him the puck. 
You’re skating right now with some NHL guys, do you have a sense of what it’s
going to take to be an NHL player or will you not get a true feel until you
play real games against them?
Benning: Yeah, I’m currently skating in
Perry Pearn’s camp and everything happens so fast. At college maybe you have three
seconds with the puck, and at the next level it could be one second and you
have to make your decision faster and everything is quicker, and everyone is
stronger. So, I mean until I get used to that, it’s going to be an adjustment
period for me for sure, but it’s kind of like any level, you go from Junior to
College, there’s an adjustment period and I just hope to limit my adjustment period
and make that jump as fast as I can.
How’s your shot?
Benning: [Laughs] I’m working on it.
Obviously there are parts of your game that you need to get better. I think
that skating and shooting everyone can get better at; definitely trying to keep
improving that.
You are 22 years old, a high level player who just signed in the NHL. What are
the things you’re doing to improve your shot?
Benning: I would say quick release or
padding the puck, kind of when you drag it behind you. You can hide it in your
feet a little bit, changing the angles of the shot and those types of things. I
mean at this level everyone knows how to shoot, it’s just kind of changing that
angle a little bit to make it hard on the goalies and that type of thing, so
just little things.
Did you play a lot on the power play last year at Northeastern?
Benning: Yeah I did. I was fortunate enough
to get an opportunity to play on the power play and we had a pretty good power
play at the end of the season, almost thirty percent. And then last year we
also had a good power play, I was more in a passing role but I was on the power
Walking the blue line is skill, but getting shots through on the blue line is
harder than it looks, especially getting through on a consistent basis. Where
do you think that you rank in those two departments specifically?
Benning: Yeah, it’s a tough skill from where
your eyes are when you see the net and where your blade is at. They are totally
different. So you have to know which way you’re going and which ways will open
up and you have to recognize which way players are skating so you can shoot it
off of their hip or in front of them type of thing. It’s definitely a skill and
you watch the NHL players now and they make it look so easy, but it’s
definitely not, it’s something that you need to work on.


Benning gives the Oilers some much needed depth on the right side. He is a good puck mover, and some seasoning in the AHL should help him adjust to pro hockey. If he plays well and makes a good impression in Bakersfield, I believe he’ll have an excellent chance to see some ice in Edmonton in 2017. 


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