Selected in the fourth round (95th overall) of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft by the Florida Panthers, Canadian-born defenseman Mike Benning enjoyed a moderately successful freshman turn with the NCAA’s Denver Pioneers.
A player with strong NHL connections and a tie to Florida, Benning is the son of former original Panther blueliner Brian Benning, younger brother of Nashville Predators defenseman Matt Benning and nephew of current Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning,
Mike decided to remain with the Sherwood Park Crusaders of the Junior A-level Alberta Junior Hockey League during his draft season and racked up 12 goals and 75 points in 54 games to catch the eye of new Panthers general manager Bill Zito and his scouting staff.
He led all defensemen in scoring in both of his seasons in the AJHL and was named the league’s, and the parent organization CJHL’s, best defenseman in 2019-20. Benning represented Canada at the 2019 World Junior A Challenge, where posted one assist in four games.
In his first season at the University of Denver, Benning appeared in 21 of 24 games for the Pioneers, registering three goals, eight assists, 15 blocks, 8 PIMs and a -1 rating.
He posted a three-assist game on December 5 against St. Cloud State and scored his first career goal and added an assist five days later against the Miami RedHawks. After putting up most of points early in the season, Benning lit the lamp twice in Denver’s NCHC Quarterfinal win over Omaha on March 13.
Benning is a prospect with a high hockey IQ and broad range of offensive tools that enable him to quarterback a power play. While he’s not a burner, he is an above-average, mobile skater who has enough quickness and agility to create separation. He boasts a hard slapshot and an underrated wrist shot, but does need to work on both his accuracy and quickening his release. Like all undersized skaters his age (5’10” - 174 lbs), he needs to bulk up before he’s ready to make the jump to the professional ranks.
According to EliteProspects 2020 NHL Draft Guide Benning understands how to create space for others through deception and manipulation. He transforms fake-passes and fake-shots into dangles, and fake-shots into passes. Benning shows good mechanics in his slap-shot, firing it hard and with precision. The way he transfers weight bottom-up through his shot is just so refined for a player at this age.
Labeled by some as a poor man’s Cale Makar, Benning is the first defenseman to be drafted by the Panthers during the Zito era. It will be interesting to see if he can bump up his improve his skating another notch, add size and round out the rest of his game to a large enough degree to make it to the NHL.