There probably weren’t many scenarios in which Jordie Benn would have such an impact on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ blueline.
Granted, it’s been just two games. But with two points in as many games and after playing 21:01 against Pittsburgh on Tuesday, something is happening here. After missing most of training camp, and only getting into two AHL games with the Toronto Marlies before making his Leafs debut last weekend, Benn found himself having to play a bigger role than he likely expected to thanks to an injury to TJ Brodie.
But now that Jake Muzzin’s return seems unlikely this season, Benn could be relied on a lot moving forward. Toronto has been linked to a variety of defensemen on the trade market early in the season without a genuine replacement for Muzzin in the team’s top six. Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren have had their moments, but it’s still a work in progress after 17 games.
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It’s a small sample size, but at 5-on-5, Benn has a 60.98 Corsi-for percentage, an identical shots-for percentage and an 80 percent goals-for percentage after five goals. He was on the ice for three of Toronto’s five goals on Tuesday while playing alongside Morgan Rielly on the top pairing. The Leafs swapped Benn and Liljegren for the game and it seemed to work – but Rielly can make just about anyone look good, to be fair.
Known as a “lumberjack” to his teammates, Benn isn’t one to mess with. He’ll absolutely punish you with no warning – some AHLers took note of that this season. He’s more of a shutdown guy, a role he assumed with Rielly beside him when lining up against Sidney Crosby on Tuesday. He can be a total pain-in-the-you-know-what to have to get around. That’s the type of toughness the Leafs wanted when they signed him this summer, compared to the more mobile, puck-moving exploits of fellow depth defender Victor Mete.
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Expectations aren’t that high for Benn. He’s making a league minimum $750,000, has scored a goal per season every season since 2019-20 and was brought in to be a physical, veteran presence that would only play every few games. The fact he’s going to have to handle a bigger load over the next few games isn’t ideal. GM Kyle Dubas should still be fully listening to the trade market. But if things are working, it can take a bit of the sting away.
Once Brodie returns, around two weeks from now, Benn will likely be the odd man out. Or maybe that happens even earlier through a trade partner. But given the instability on the blueline this year with injuries galore – God forbid they lose someone like Rielly – it’s nice seeing someone like Benn come in and find his groove right away.
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Short-term, long-term, whatever. Benn’s play has been a net positive for the Leafs in the short run and it’ll be interesting to see how he’s utilized moving forward. The Leafs need defensive stability, and they made some moves over the off-season to add to the depth. Things haven’t worked exactly as planned, but they’re not in doomsday mode right now, and missing two key pieces of the top four could certainly pan out much worse.