The Edmonton Oilers lost their third game in a row on Thursday. That makes it officially a losing streak. Fans were hoping that this 7-1-0 start was the beginning of the end of this kind of pain and torture, but like any team in the NHL, the Oilers will have their ups and downs. Only the Montreal Canadiens haven’t lost in regulation and at some point, that will change too. It’s just the way it goes.
But, like any loss, blame is one of the first emotions passed around like the basketball at a Harlem Globetrotters game. It’s not enough to say the Oilers were in a tough, hardly-contested battle and came up short. Someone needs to be the scapegoat. In this case, because he’s young, he’s inexperienced and he was on the ice when the goal went in, early blame seems to be going the way of rookie Matthew Benning. It shouldn’t be.
Who Is Matthew Benning?
Benning came to Edmonton as a free agent college signing this summer. He played well enough in camp to earn a spot on the team and while he sat in the press box during the first Oilers games of the season, he deserved the right to be called an Edmonton Oiler.
Eventually, Benning made his way down to the Bakersfield Condors of the AHL before he saw any action with Edmonton. In two AHL games he scored a goal and an assist. When the Oilers started to struggle a bit, he was called up.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) November 1, 2016
His Play in Two Games
Against the Maple Leafs on Tuesday, Matt Benning made his NHL debut. It was a debut lost in the media blitz that was the Connor McDavid versus Auston Matthews story line, but it was done as a way to perhaps spark a team that had come off a tough loss to the Ottawa Senators.
Benning wasn’t expected to log a ton of minutes and he hasn’t. In two games he’s played a total of 28 minutes and he’s averaging just over 14 minutes a game. Replacing Eric Gryba, Benning was paired with Darnell Nurse and while it was to be conceded that the duo would be less experienced than that of Gryba and Nurse, it was also expected to be a more mobile and transition ready pairing.
Early on, it showed. Benning was solid, but more importantly, Nurse was engaged and jumping into the play. It was some of Darnell’s best work of the season thus far.
Overall, Benning played well. In two games he’s been an even on the plus/minus side of things. He has two shots on goal and his Corsi percentage (CF%) was 56.1%, which means the Oilers were controlling the puck more often than not when Benning was on the ice. The reality is, there wasn’t much more you could ask for from a rookie.
Yet, many questioned Oilers-coach Todd McLellan’s decision to put Benning on the ice in the final two minutes of the hockey game against the Rangers. It was a ton of responsibility to place at the feet of a player, who perhaps, hadn’t shown himself to be ready.
Who’s To Blame?
Unfortunately, the Rangers scored in those final two minutes. As a result, Benning has taken some heat.
You can see in the above video around the 0:23 mark that the goal scorer Rick Nash was left open in front of the net. It was a breakdown at a very bad time in a tied hockey game. Both Milan Lucic and Matt Benning were in the defensive area of that breakdown, but as you can see Benning is coming out of the corner boards and attempting to stay with his man Mats Zuccarello. I’m not suggesting the loss be placed at the feet of Milan Lucic, but it is Lucic, not Benning, who should have been on top of Rick Nash. Lucic essentially gave Nash a free pass.
Further to that, Nurse and Benning were among the Oilers best defensemen on Thursday and while it’s fair to question why McLellan would lay such responsibility upon Benning near the end of a tie game, his play with Nurse suggests that it wasn’t a poor decision — just a judgement call gone wrong.
Understandable that people unhappy with Benning out late, but also an argument to be made that Benning/Nurse only reliable pair this game! pic.twitter.com/44QmtewaOh
— Oilers Nerd Alert (@OilersNerdAlert) November 4, 2016
Matt Benning has played a limited role in the Oilers last two games. It is unfortunate that Edmonton has lost both contests. It doesn’t mean that Benning is the reason for the losses or should be blamed for this run of poor games.
Where to Go From Here
In practice this morning, the Oilers juggled the lines and not surprisingly, Lucic was bumped down. He’s no longer practicing on the top line with Connor McDavid, but has moved to Patrick Maroon’s spot on the third line alongside Leon Draisaitl and Zack Kassian.
Is it because of one play that Lucic has moved down? Likely not. It’s logical to suggest this move is a way to shake things up a bit and try to find better chemistry among the forward core. This kind of thing happens when you lose three straight games.
But, perhaps it too is a sign that the Rick Nash goal was more on Lucic than anyone. In particular, not on Matt Benning. People are going to try and find ways to explain a bad loss to a good team. Players will have bad reads and make mistakes. In the final two minutes of the game against the New York Rangers, it’s easy to point fingers in a lot of directions.
At the end of the day, the Oilers need a win. They’ll get a chance to get one against the New York Islanders on Saturday. It’s likely that Matthew Benning may be a part of that game. If he isn’t, it’s not because he’s played poorly. It’s because Eric Gryba is coming back in to provide a bit more veteran experience.
Jim Parsons is a freelance writer who covers the Edmonton Oilers and news and rumors posts here at The Hockey Writers.
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