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 before turning it on in his second season 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 San Jose Sharks defenseman Matt Benning and nephew of former Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning, who also played 610 games in the NHL.
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 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, 2020 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, 2021
As a sophomore, a more comfortable and confident Benning racked up 15 goals and 38 points, finishing one point behind Michigan’s Luke Hughes, who was the highest scoring defenseman in Division I college hockey. Five of his goals were game-winners and he amassed 82 shots on goal and finished the season with a team-high +32 rating.
The 20-year-old was named the National Player of the Month for March and April by the Hockey Commissioners’ Association. He was also named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Frozen Four as he produced four points (1G/3A) in wins against number one seeds Michigan and Minnesota State to help Denver capture their record-tying ninth national championship.
Benning is a prospect with a high hockey IQ and a wide range of offensive tools that enable him to quarterback a power play. While he’s not a speed demon, he is an above-average, mobile skater who has enough quickness and agility to create separation. He boasts a hard slapper and an underrated wrist shot. Like all undersized skaters his age, he needs to bulk up some more 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. He 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.
Benning will play for the Pioneers again this season. Don’t be surprised if the Panthers sign him to an entry-level deal next spring.