Maple Leafs Should Look at Right-Shot Defenseman Matt Benning

Late yesterday, Elliotte Friedman reported that the Toronto Maple Leafs tendered qualifying offers to two players but had not qualified four others. On the list of qualified players were both Ilya Mikheyev and Travis Dermott. The list of players who were not qualified included Freddie Gauthier, Jeremy Bracco, Evan Rodrigues, and Max Veronneau.

As most NHL hockey fans already know, a qualifying offer is an official Standard Player Contract (SPC) offer of one year, which can be subject to salary arbitration if the player is eligible. Specifically, in terms of a contract, players who earned less than $660,000 in the previous season must be offered 110 percent of last season’s salary. Players making up to $1 million must be offered 105 percent. Players making over $1 million must be offered 100 percent.

On the Other Side of Canada, the Oilers Didn’t Qualify Defenseman Matt Benning

I’ll explore later what it might mean for the Maple Leafs to qualify the two players they did, and not to qualify four others. However, for the purposes of my post today, I want to look across Canada to the prairies at another team that also went through its own qualifying/non-qualifying procedure. That’s the Edmonton Oilers.

Interestingly, from the perspective of the Maple Leafs, left off the Oilers list of qualified players was right-shot defenseman Matt Benning. I think he’s a young player the Maple Leafs might want to consider as a possibility to fill their own defensive needs.

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One similarity between the Oilers and the Maple Leafs is that both teams – and these two teams are far from alone in this aspect – are tight up against the upper limit of the NHL’s current salary cap. However, the teams differ in at least one other important aspect. The Oilers have a pretty solid defensive unit, and the Maple Leafs don’t.

Could Matt Benning Land with the Maple Leafs?

During Day 1 of this year’s NHL Entry Draft, TSN’s Ryan Rishaug spoke with Oilers general manager Ken Holland about his plans moving forward. When Holland was asked specifically whether the team would qualify forward Andreas Athanasiou and defenseman Matt Benning, Holland said, “I don’t think so.”

Rumors of Matt Benning to the Maple Leafs are not new. Prior to the start of the 2019-20 season, there were rumours of a Benning-to-the-Maple Leafs trade. Benning fits the one checklist that Toronto badly needs – a right-handed defenseman.

Now, with the regular season and this year’s NHL Entry Draft both over and with the chance Benning will become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) if he’s not signed by the Oilers by later tomorrow, is there a chance he could move to the Maple Leafs this offseason?

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Benning was expendable for two reasons: first, he’s a salary-cap fatality; and, second, the Oilers have other good right-handed defensemen. During the 2019-20 season, Benning simply couldn’t find regular ice time in Edmonton. Both Adam Larsson and emerging young star Ethan Bear took up ice time in front of him.

Matt Benning Oilers
Matt Benning, Edmonton Oilers, Oct. 21, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Benning was also injured during mid-season, suffering a concussion, and that injury didn’t help his cause. In fact, the injury offered other Oilers defensemen more ice time; and, that helped Bear emerge as a go-to player. Few hockey pundits would have predicted Bear’s very rapid emergence as a key, young Oilers defenseman. That emergence was a pleasant surprise that effectively moved Bear into a more prominent role and, at the same time, decreased Benning’s value.

How Benning Might Address the Maple Leafs’ Needs

That said, Benning still can play; and, given the Maple Leafs needs at right-side defense and the fact that Benning wasn’t qualified, it makes sense to ask if Toronto should consider Benning this offseason. He’s a solid player who does the little things right. He’s sound positionally and doesn’t take risks by jumping into the play too quickly.

He moves the puck well, which might allow some of the load to be shifted from Morgan Rielly. I can see him taking Cody Ceci’s place as Rielly’s partner for a lot less money. His advanced statistics suggest that his defensive numbers are slightly better than NHL average and his offensive numbers slightly worse than NHL average. Those numbers would hardly detract from the Maple Leafs’ needs.

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Benning’s also a possibility because he might come cheaply. He’s just come off a team-friendly contract at $1.9 million. Given his status with the Oilers and a salary cap situation that’s up-in-the-air, he wouldn’t have expected a raise. It also might mean he’d be open to signing a short-term, team-friendly contract. Again, that’s something Dubas is seeking.

Perhaps Benning’s a possibility to help the Maple Leafs. He’s an Edmonton native and I’ve read that he loves playing there. In fact, who knows if he’s already had a conversation with Holland about a future with the team. Although he wasn’t qualified, in an age of COVID-19, players need contracts. If I were a player seeking a contract in the context of the current pandemic, I might try to negotiate a smaller-value contract with a signing bonus – just in case the NHL has to miss the 2020-21 season.

Would Matt Benning Sign a Short-Term Deal?

I’m unsure what it means that the Oilers didn’t qualify Benning. Although he can still sign a short-term contract with his home team, perhaps the Oilers aren’t interested in keeping him. If so, he could be the right-shot defenseman the Maple Leafs need.

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The 26-year-old Benning would likely sign a cheaper contract than Justin Holl currently has. He’s a different player than Holl – maybe a bit less skilled but a lot more physical.

Justin Holl Toronto Maple Leafs
Justin Holl, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Should he and the Oilers not work out something by Oct. 9, he’ll likely test free agency and receive a short-term offer at a much lower cost per season than his qualifying offer would have been. I’ve always liked his game; and, even if he isn’t on the Maple Leafs radar, I hope he gets an opportunity to play more.

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