The Montreal Canadiens are in a tough spot. They’re missing their biggest asset on defence for at least the first 10 weeks of the season, and besides Jeff Petry lack a standout to help shoulder that burden. There are trade options out in the market, and if Marc Bergevin wants to make the playoffs, as he claimed in his July 1 press conference, he may need to dip into that market to reach his stated goal.
While not explicitly mentioned, Matt Benning of the Edmonton Oilers is a 24-year-old, right-shooting defencemen with offensive skill. In the right circumstances, adding Benning to the Canadiens defensive group would likely be a positive.
Therein lies the issue, however: Can Benning, in this specific situation, which likely means heavy top-four minutes, produce the same underlying metrics that he had in Edmonton?
Benning only has two full years of professional experience under his belt, both of them being in the NHL with the Oilers after his NCAA career. Last year he scored six goals and added 15 assists in 73 games; fairly respectable numbers for a player in his role.
Beyond that, he produced some fairly remarkable possession numbers, even in spite of the Oilers being a disaster for most of the season.
In the offensive zone (where he started the majority of his shifts), he had a positive impact overall.
The first heatmap shows where shots are coming from with Benning on the ice, while the second is with him off the ice at five-on-five. The first clear difference is how many more shots are produced from the right side as opposed to when he was on the bench.
Not only do the shots coming from the right point cease, most of the chances heading into the slot and faceoff area thin out as well, making it very obvious what sort of impact Benning has on the offence.
His impact isn’t just limited to even-strength hockey however. On the power play the Oilers shot generation had a massive uptick when Benning was on the ice.
Once again, the Oilers’ shot generation from the right side of the ice, down through the slot to the front of the net, is fantastic. While it’s not all Benning, his side is the one generating most of these chances overall, which cannot be said for when he’s not playing.
There’s more to a player’s stats than just their shots, and Benning shines in many categories. But the following chart will also highlight one of the red flags Montreal should be wary of.
Compared to his fellow right-handed defender, Benning produces more offence, and does better in both creating and limiting shots against. His expected goals are great, he has a positive penalty differential, and in general looks better all around than Adam Larsson. The one caveat is an important one, however: Benning is granted an extremely generous deployment, while his teammate is not.
According to Natural Stat Trick, Benning started 56.8% of his end-zone shifts in the offensive zone, while Larsson started just 46.3% of his shifts there. Out of all the Oilers’ defenders who played over 500 minutes at five-on-five last year, Benning received the easiest zonal deployment, and it wasn’t against overly difficult competition.
This is where Montreal would need to be careful if they were considering pursuing Benning in a trade, hoping to get both a long-term asset and a stopgap solution at once. He wouldn’t be getting lighter minutes on a sheltered pairing, he’d likely be playing alongside Karl Alzner and taking on plenty of defensive minutes in the process. And there’s a clear problem with keeping shots away from his net when he’s in the defensive zone.
While he can pile up shots in the offensive zone, the heatmaps for the shots he allows against are not very kind to Benning. Opponents don’t have much issue creating shots from his side of the ice, especially from the net-front area. Based on the shot chart without him on the ice, this could very well be a systemic issue more than an indictment overall of Benning’s ability to play the defensive game. When you factor in how infrequently he started in the defensive zone, it doesn’t bode well for his ability to play effective minutes in a top-four role.
This would all be fine if the Canadiens had a healthy Shea Weber in the lineup, as they could stash Benning down on the third pairing, and hand him the same deployment he received in Edmonton. With Weber out, Claude Julien cannot afford to shelter another defender.
Once Weber returns, he could serve as a solid addition to a lower pairing in the Montreal lineup. As it stands, the circumstances aren’t right for the move to happen right now, and less so if it’s going to cost a major piece to bring a young offensive blue-liner from a team that’s struggled to find quality defencemen for so long.
In a different year, with different luck, adding Benning could be a good move on Marc Bergevin’s part to give his blue line a more offensive dynamic. For right now, the team’s needs lie elsewhere.