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PRINCIPE: Carrying On

Sportsnet's Gene Principe blogs about Matt Benning's increased role this season

by Gene Principe / Special to

On Thursday, the Edmonton Oilers skated at the Rogers Place Community rink as the main ice surface was off limits because of a Nickelback concert. At the end of practice, Matt Benning was carrying 15-20 sticks back to the main room when he was intercepted by PR to do some interviews. He dropped the sticks, did the interview, and in the meantime the Oilers PR group - the nice guys that they are - had brought the sticks to the dressing room for Benning.

The next to be interviewed was Todd McLellan and as he finished, there was Benning again. This time he was carrying his teammates' sticks back to the community rink before turning right around and returning to the main room. Now that's a commitment to finishing what you started. 

Speaking of stick-ing around, that's what Matt Benning did last season with the Oilers. A former sixth-round pick with Boston that never came to terms with his draft team, but did so with his hometown team. Fresh off a junior season at Northeastern he was expected to be in the AHL for a little pro seasoning before making it to the bigs. Well, his seasoning lasted barely a weekend's worth of games - two to be exact - and because of various circumstances he was an Edmonton Oiler. He went onto play 62 regular season games and 12 more in the playoffs before the rookie was done with year one.

He proved on Thursday he can carry sticks, but can he carry on with his growth and progression in season two? There's nothing to suggest that won't be the case for the blueliner. In fact, even more is expected of him because of the injury to Andrej Sekera. From being a fifth or sixth defenceman last season, Benning is now slotted in to be more of a three to four guy. It may not sound like a big jump but it is, or at least can be, for any NHL defenceman.

Benning spoke of those challenges quite candidly and honestly. There's the ice time which will be added to his totals. Plus, this isn't just quantity but quality. Instead of being on the ice much of the night against a third and often fourth-line players, the move up the D depth chart means more matchups with number two and sometimes number one lines of opposing teams. Not to mention, a move up on the blueline roll call means an opportunity to get more time on the power play, which is something he got a glimpse of in the playoffs.

In listening to Benning describe this next season you don't get the sense he's at all overwhelmed or uncomfortable with his new role. He acknowledges this thing we call the 'sophomore slump' and he's prepared to do whatever he can to make sure it doesn't happen to him. He kind of chuckled about playing with every single defensive partner possible last season, except Eric Gryba. While he admitted the same one would be nice, having the variety of others could have only helped a learning curve which trended upwards in a steady and strong motion all season long. Todd McLellan admits the Oilers are trying to find the right work load for Benning. Giving him more to do is fine, but not stunting his future growth at the same time is a balancing act for the coach and the club.

It was a busy off-season for Matt Benning. He took some schooling and also did some hands on work with his truck. It goes along with all the skating, lifting and preparation he did for the 2017-18 season. On Thursday, he proved he can carry a lot of sticks and this season he'll prove he can carry on where left off last season.

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