The phrase modern day defenceman gets thrown around so often in hockey circles these days that it’s starting to lose both value and meaning. What is a modern day defenceman? To me, it is a player with great movement and positioning skills, who works the transition game well and can provide adequate value in all three areas of the ice.
He doesn’t have to be the biggest guy, since his playing style is more important than his physique. Being smart and having great mobility can take you a long way. Guys like Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson have also shown that it’s possible to become Norris Trophy winners by being offence-first kind of defencemen.
Michael Benning is another project in the new era of defencemen. He is neither big nor the most fluent defender, but give him a puck and he will tear the opposing team to shreds.
Birthplace: St. Albert, Alberta
Date of birth: January 5, 2002
Weight: 174 lbs.
Team: Sherwood Park Crusaders (AJHL)
Another product of the talent brigade that is Sherwood Park Crusaders, Benning has grown up virtually attached to Carter Savoie. Their careers and lives have been intertwined since childhood. Their families lived on the same street, meaning they have practically not been apart since they first could lace up a pair of skates.
Sometimes reporters can create a feel-good story out of nothing, but look at Benning’s young career and then compare it to Savoie’s: They both started off in St. Albert Sabres before continuing on to Northern Alberta’s Elite and prep programs. They then rose to prominence in the AJHL, each dominating one side of the ice while at Sherwood Park. They both decided to enroll at an American university and, naturally, they got accepted to the same NCAA program. Even on the international stages they have followed suit, playing for both the AJHL Selects team and Canada West’s U19.
You could say that the Savoies are a hockey family, with Carter’s brother being a projected top pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. However, Michael’s family provides us with a whole saga of hockey trivia. His brother Matt Benning is currently one of the defencemen on the Oilers roster. Their father Brian played more than 500 games for a handful of franchises during an eleven-year NHL career. Brian’s brother Jim is currently the General Manager for the Vancouver Canucks. Lastly, Jim and Brian’s father and Michael’s grandfather is the Montreal Canadiens former long-time scout, the late Elmer Benning.
So, with Savoie being the creative scoring prodigy of the Sherwood Park Crusaders, who is Benning? He is a right-handed, undersized defenceman with terrific puck skills. He has excellent vision and provides playmaking upside from the back end.
So far, he’s better equipped for the offensive side of the game than being a reliable force in his own zone. This could, however, also be a factor from Sherwood Park being a powerhouse in the most recent edition of the AJHL. He didn’t exactly have to provide much defence since the Crusaders out-scored most opponents anyway.
His biggest downfall is exactly this — the lack of viable opposition. If he had produced similar statistics in one of the more reputable Canadian hockey leagues, he would surely be considered a first-rounder by now.
A nice little play here by Michael Benning. Playing much better today.— Tony Ferrari (@theTonyFerrari) December 12, 2019
He collects the puck along the boards and rather than trapping himself behind the net or in the corner, turns up the boards and opens a shooting lane. Leads to a solid scoring chance in front.#2020NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/Tujm2IhCez
Benning plays his game with a boatload of intelligence. In the AJHL, he was the brains in Sherwood Park’s powerplay, successfully setting up his teammates for quality scoring opportunities. When there isn’t anyone open, he is equally comfortable to unleash his heavy slapshot. He will need to work on his skating though. It is by no means bad, but projects closer to average than being a new Victor Mete.
He is no Cale Makar either, even if their projected stat line on hockeyprospecting.com is eerily similar. Makar was a prolific skater and much more refined coming out of the AJHL, being the sole bright spot on the Brooks Bandits roster. Benning has undoubtedly had more help, with Savoie and teammate Arjun Atwal being the league’s number one and two in scoring last year.
Elite Prospects: #62
Future Considerations: #66
Hockey Prospect: N/R
McKeen’s Hockey: #59
NHL Central Scouting: #57 (North American skaters)
Scott Wheeler (The Athletic): #41
Smaller defencemen with good, but not great, skating have a difficult road to travel if they want to reach the big leagues, no matter how talented they are in other areas. During his time in Denver, Benning will have to work on his physique if he wants to continue upwards onto the upper echelon of his potential.
But there is something about him. Just like with Savoie, Benning possesses puck skills that can’t be taught. His way of opening up defences with his passing ability is a joy to see, as is his way of controlling the puck while it’s on his stick.
This broad offensive skill set will no doubt entice a lot of suitors on day two. If he could get his skating up just another level, there could be real value-for-money found with this selection.
Ironically, there is a real chance that the two buddies could get picked by the same team in the draft as well, possibly extending their journey together even further. Much like with the Sedin twins, there has been buzz about Savoie and Benning being so in tune with each other that it would be unfortunate to separate them at this point.
There are several teams with multiple selections in the second round, one of them being the Montreal Canadiens. Could Marc Bergevin and Trevor Timmins swing for the fences and select two puck prodigies from St. Albert, AB? It would certainly be an entertaining storyline to follow moving forward.
However, there will be little chance of a family reunion for the Benning’s this year since Uncle Jim and his Canucks don’t have a pick until late in the third round.