RHD, Sherwood Park Crusaders (AJHL)
5’9″/170 lbs, 17.69 years old
Exceptionally calm and intelligent with the puck:
- Decidedly his most valuable asset, Benning is able to take control of games with his processing and intelligence. He’s not extremely dynamic– and people will make a bigger deal out of that than it deserves simply because of Benning’s 5’9″ stature– but he has an incredible calmness under pressure that allows him to get his head up and move the puck away from pressure.
- Terrific passer with excellent command of the short pass. Able to consistently hit forecheckers in motion on the breakout, setting his team up for success in transition. Even when Benning isn’t directly involved in a zone exit, his contributions can be seen in the space he creates for his teammates.
Above-average skater, very mobile in transition:
- A common criticism of Benning’s game as a 5’9″ defenceman is that he doesn’t skate well enough for his size. As I’ve said several times on Twitter: I’m not sure when or where the narrative that smaller players have to be elite/highly dynamic players to be successful started, but there’s no evidence in its favour. If anything, it’s a poor mask for blatant bias against smaller players even as guys like Alex DeBrincat and Quinn Hughes emerge as NHL stars despite their smaller statures.
- Benning isn’t the most dynamic defender you’ll find, but his mobility projects pretty clearly as above-average. He moves well in all four directions with the puck, giving him the tools to escape pressure and create the time to make a play.
- He barely gets touched at the AJHL level because he reads the play well enough to consistently evade pressure; even if his skating becomes less of an asset moving forward, he should be able to make up for it with his anticipation and intelligence.
Dangerous shot, gets himself into shooting positions from the blueline:
- Unfortunately, we don’t have shot data for the AJHL so we can’t quantify this, but Benning does not seem to shy away from using his shot. He has an impressive one-timer, stepping into passes to deliver hard, accurate shots from the point.
- Benning scored 10 goals in 60 games last season, and is on pace for 16 in that many games this year. Cale Makar, in contrast, scored 10 in 54 contests as a DY-1; then 24 in 54 games in his draft seasons. Makar has developed into a real scoring threat from the point at the NHL level– he’s currently on pace for well over 20 goals for the Avalanche.
- Benning won’t be close to a Makar-level scorer at the NHL level (his AJHL numbers don’t measure up at all), but he won’t be afraid to activate into the play and use that aspect of his game.
Exceptional powerplay quarterback:
- With his intelligence as a distributor, Benning projects as a powerplay QB at the NHL level. I’m not sure which unit (a future on a top unit is well within his range of outcomes in my eyes), but his skillset is very well suited for that role.
- Benning had the fifth highest rate of primary points per game on the man advantage of any defenceman in the AJHL last year, and the four players ahead of him on that list were born in 1999 or earlier (Benning is a 2002 birthdate).
Lack of dynamism:
- A dynamic style isn’t a necessity for an effective transitional defender, but it is preferable. If teams can get in quick on the forecheck and take away his passing options, Benning will have to adapt his game to create options in other ways.
- It isn’t a necessity, but taking his skating ability to another level could considerably boost his NHL ceiling.
Quality of competition:
- Since 1996, only 31 players who participated in at least 15 AJHL games in their draft season have gone on to register at least one point in the NHL (the most notable names on that list: Dany Heatley, Cale Makar, and Colton Parayko), with many of them becoming nothing more than role players.
- I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the pace of play in the AJHL games I’ve seen live, but the level of competition doesn’t measure up to what he would be facing in a higher-level league like the WHL. I see a lot of reason for his game to translate well to higher levels (particularly his intelligence), but we won’t know for sure until he starts to play NCAA games next season.
Cale Makar is an obvious statistical comparable for Benning– they’ve put up very similar levels of production dating back to last season. Their point-per-game rates as draft-minus-ones were literally identical: 1.02 points/game. Makar went on to put up 1.39 points per contest the year later as a draft eligible, while Benning currently sits at 1.48 points/game. Makar and Benning even played for similarly excellent teams: Benning’s Sherwood Park Crusaders had 90 points in his D-1 season and are on pace for 111 this year. The Brooks Bandits, who Makar spent two seasons with from 2014 to 2016, had an identical 90 points in his D-1 year followed by 100 in Makar’s draft season. The comparison is eerily similar, and projects well for Benning’s future.
A hyperintelligent puckmoving blueliner, Benning is already the best defenceman in the entire AJHL and he isn’t even 18 years old. You’d think Cale Makar would have cleared the way for undersized defenders out of the AJHL, but Benning continues to be spectacularly overlooked by the majority of sources. We have him ranked 21st on our board, but Benning is just 40th on Colin Cudmore’s consolidated list (the best representation of the consensus view of this draft).
It absolutely baffles me that a player who is currently outpacing Cale Makar’s draft season isn’t even a consensus top 31 pick in this draft. He isn’t Cale Makar (despite the many statistical parallels), don’t get me wrong, but all the signs point to him being an impactful player at the NHL level. Quality of competition doesn’t mean a whole lot when a player is dominating up a league to this degree, and any concerns about him not being a strong enough skater for his size are unfounded.
Benning projects as a top 4 defenceman and powerplay quarterback at the NHL level. He projects extremely favourably in comparison to his AJHL peers– we’ve spent plenty of time talking about Makar, but Benning is also outpacing players like Jacob Bernard-Docker (26th overall in 2018) and Ian Mitchell (57th overall in 2017) by tremendous amounts. His exceptional intelligence should allow him to mitigate the transitions to higher levels of competition– first the NCAA for the University of Denver, then potentially the AHL, and finally the NHL– as he develops into a capable defenceman in the best league in the world.