This summer, defenseman Michael Benning had the opportunity to expand his horizons internationally. The Sherwood Park Crusaders blueliner and 2020 NHL draft prospect was part of Team AJHL, an all-star collection of players from the Alberta Jr. A League that participated in the Junior Club World Cup in Sochi, Russia. The hockey was great and Team AJHL earned silver, losing to Loko Yaroslavl in the final. Eating out in a town where most folks don’t speak English? That was another matter.
Benning recalled one adventure where he and some teammates went to a restaurant that, unbeknownst to them, charged by the weight of the food instead of the items themselves.
“Our meals were like, $50 Canadian each,” he said. “It was an experience, for sure.”
Restaurant debacles aside, Benning’s draft year is off to a tremendous start. The smart and fearless Crusader is the top-scoring defenseman in the AJHL right now with 31 points in 21 games, seven points clear of his closest competitor. Sherwood Park is 19-2-0, with high expectations for the season. And, Benning gets to play alongside his buddy Carter Savoie, a high-scoring left winger and 2020 NHL draft prospect who is committed to the University of Denver, just like Benning.
“It’s nice to have your best friend along for all these experiences,” Benning said. “It’s been wild, growing up together and now we’re in junior, heading to college.”
As Benning gets stronger, he’ll be an even more effective defenseman: right now if he loses a battle, it’s because he has been outpositioned, not outsmarted. With Sherwood Park, he has a great resource in associate coach and former NHL blueliner Jeff Woywitka.
“It’s obviously a great tool to have him,” Benning said. “Jeff teaches you things you don’t think about. He pushes us a lot in our development, which is really helpful.”
And if the youngster needs any further advice, he can simply turn to any one of his numerous family members with NHL experience: uncle Jim Benning is the GM of the Vancouver Canucks, father Brian Benning played in the league for a decade and older brother Matt patrols the blueline for the Edmonton Oilers, who play just 20 minutes away from the suburban Sherwood Park. That means plenty of time for advice, but also tickets to games for Michael.
“It’s not bad watching Connor (McDavid), either,” Benning said with a grin.
With such a high ceiling, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Michael on the ice at Rogers Arena in a few years, either.
Here are some other 2020 draft prospects making noise right now:
1. Alexander Holtz, RW, Djurgarden (SHL): With six points in 15 games, Holtz is one of the top junior-aged scorers in the SHL. More importantly, however, is that he’s playing on Djurgarden’s first line with former NHLer Patrik Berglund as his center.
2. Ryan O’Rourke, D, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL): It’s pretty impressive when a 17-year-old is named captain and that’s what O’Rourke has earned in the Soo. With 12 points in 15 games, the tough blueliner is also contributing at both ends.
3. Tim Stutzle, C, Adler Mannheim (DEL): Get excited for the next German draft star. Stutzle ranks fourth with 15 points in 17 games for Mannheim and the three players ahead of him are all former NHLers. Stutzle plays a skilled and tenacious game.
4. Dawson Mercer, RW, Drummondville Voltigeurs (QMJHL): Mercer made a statement in Game 1 of the CHL-Russia series with two points for the ‘Q’ in a 4-3 loss. But the Volts star has been humming all season with 31 points in 19 games.
5. Tyson Foerster, C, Barrie Colts (OHL): One of the big early surprises, Foerster has rung up 26 points in 16 games for the Colts, putting him top-10 in OHL scoring. He’s been playing on a big line with Ryan Suzuki (CAR) and Matej Pekar (BUF), though Suzuki is now hurt.
6. Danil Gushchin, RW, Muskegon Lumberjacks (USHL): Gushchin had all four goals in an overtime win over Waterloo on the weekend and though the Russian import was quieter the next night against Youngstown, I really liked his puckhandling and protection skills. He’s got 14 points in 10 games.
7. Seth Jarvis, RW, Portland Winterhawks (WHL): A talented producer who can hurt you in all situations, Jarvis is up to 21 points in 15 games, good for top-10 in the ‘Dub.’ He had a nice Hlinka-Gretzky tourney for Canada, too.
8. Kaiden Guhle, D, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL): With three points in his past two games, Guhle is starting to heat up and his offense is already way ahead of last year’s pace. With his size and skating ability, that makes for some serious potential.
9. Samuel Hlavaj, G, Sherbrooke Phoenix (QMJHL): I’m very intrigued by Hlavaj, who was passed over in the 2019 draft. The big Slovakian import was very raw last year with USHL Lincoln, but this season he’s been one of the best netminders in the ‘Q’ with a .921 save percentage and 2.14 goals-against average.
10. Kasper Simontaival, RW, Tappara (Fin.): A smaller player with a great shot and quick hands, Simontaival has already played a game in the Liiga this year but has done most of his damage in Finland’s junior league where he has 19 points in 21 games.