Matt Benning has been asked to do a lot more this season than he might have otherwise been had defenseman Andrej Sekera stayed healthy. When Sekera went down, the Edmonton Oilers had two choices: they could either find a suitable replacement by trade or free agency or they could promote from within. They chose the latter and to date, it hasn’t worked out terribly well.
The Oilers are 1-2-0 over three games and while it’s not time to hit the panic button, Benning is likely to get a seat in the press box since he’s been prevalent in the losses that came at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets and Vancouver Canucks — two teams on paper, the Oilers were favored to beat. Some might say sitting Benning is surprising considering the Oilers are only three games into the season. Benning isn’t one of those people.
What’s Gone Wrong for Benning
The Oilers can’t blame everything on the young blueliner. After all, he’s got less than 70 games on his NHL resume and there are others who haven’t pulled their weight. That said, he was a revelation last season after being signed out of college and he jumped right into the Oilers lineup on the third pairing, becoming a trusted piece of the back end that saw the Oilers make the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. This season has not been a repeat performance.
Benning will be the first to admit he needs to be better. When asked about the news he might be demoted, he said, “Against Calgary, I had spurts of a good game, but the last two games (Vancouver and Winnipeg) were very bad,” When asked why he was struggling, he went on to add, “I don’t know. There are no excuses. By now, I know how to play. Part of it’s confidence but I haven’t been good so far.”
Understanding the Problem
The good news here is that Benning isn’t beating around the bush in his assessment of himself. He knows he has to be better.
He has the support of his coaches, but head coach Todd McLellan hasn’t been shy about calling out his players in the early part of the season and among that group that’s seen the early criticism has been Benning who McLellan deemed as uncertain, unengaged and, frankly, somewhat clumsy. Benning is getting the puck stuck between his skates and his hands, not breaking out of the zone like he did last season and potentially feeling overwhelmed with the new responsibility.
All of these are things that can be fixed and not a reason for panic. There’s plenty of time and it’s not as if Benning was brought in last season to jump into a top-four role on the blue line; but, that’s what this season called for. The truth is, he may simply not be ready. If that’s the case, he’ll have time, but the Oilers need to find another option.
That option could be also young, but speedy Darnell Nurse. Nurse missed much of last season with an injury but he’s played well in the three games to start the year.
Or, it could be Yohann Auvitu who will be dressing on Saturday for the first time since being acquired over the summer. Auvitu is an offensive defenseman who the Oilers figured might add some depth and power play minutes.
Nurse will likely jump up to the second pairing and Auvitu will slot in the six or seven spot. In the meantime, Benning will watch. He’s an honest kid with a blue-chip attitude. He’ll be fine and when he comes back, should be all the better for it.