Matt Benning and Peter Quenneville have three things in common:
They are both from Alberta.
They both played in the AJHL for two years.
And they are teammates on the Dubuque Fighting Saints.
“The AJ is a good league,” says Dubuque head coach Jim Montgomery. “I’ve scouted it many times in college and I would say it’s the Canadian league that’s most familiar to the USHL.”
There is some controversy over whether or not the two leagues are on equal playing fields. Benning, for instance, chose to remain in the AJHL for another year even though he was drafted into the WHL because he wanted to maintain his NCAA eligibility. And while some players go directly from the AJHL to college hockey, talk to both players and you get the feeling that the USHL is a stronger league and a necessary step before college.
“A lot of college players come to this league,” offers Benning, “so it’s much [faster] and better players, but [the AJHL] helped me a lot. Taught me the basics and stuff like that.”
“I had a good year last year,” quips Quenneville, the AJHL League MVP last year, “building confidence offensively and really growing as a player. It prepared me for the USHL this year.”
Montgomery says the Alberta league prepared both players to play without the puck.
“You can see that in both players,” he says.
Benning and Quenneville are two very unique players. The former is a 6’0”, 200-pound stay-at-home defenseman while the latter is a 5’9”, 175-pound forward that uses his vision and speed to make plays on the open ice.
“My strength is my physical play,” says Benning. “I’ve been working on my speed, just getting in better shape, quicker feet and stuff like that, which has helped me, but I’m still working on it.”
“What I like about his game is that he has great poise and hockey sense,” says Montgomery. “He breaks the puck out extremely well and he’s really physical and takes away time and space well.”
Montgomery feels, however, that his blueliner needs to put more shots on net if he’s going to succeed at the next level.
“He needs to…continue to work on his shot in the offensive zone,” says the coach. “He sees these people open, but he doesn’t always think shot. He needs to create a shoot-first mentality.”
It is fitting, then, that Benning is trying to model his game after Mike Green of the Washington Capitals.
“A hard-nosed guy that finishes his checks, stays at home, just makes good plays,” describes Benning.
“I’m trying to work on my offensive game so I can get into the offensive game a little more, but that’s the player I’m closest to.”
Quenneville, on the other hand, seems to weasel into any play he can—his small stature be damned.
“My hockey sense and my ability to make plays offensively is probably a strength,” he says. “My weakness is probably my checking and my physicality.”
“Peter’s just a high-end vision player with really great hands,” says Montgomery. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with his work ethic away from the puck, but from what I’ve seen so far, he’s got to work on his consistency and actually attacking inside the dots.”
Quenneville committed to Quinnipiac early in the recruitment process and feels the decision has galvanized his development as a player.
“I started talking to them when I was 16, my first year in the Alberta league,” he says. “I felt it was a smart decision for me—being able to put that aside and just focus on hockey and not having to try and get a scholarship on my shoulder.”
“He’s going to be an impact college player,” says Montgomery, “Already I can see that.”
Quenneville, for those of you interested, is not related to Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. Benning, however, is the son of former NHL defenseman Brian Benning and the nephew of Boston Bruins' assistant GM, Jim Benning.
The Bruins drafted him in the sixth round last year, and, while there are immediate comparisons to his uncle and his father, he has chosen his own path by going the college route rather than joining the Western Hockey League.
“It’s a better opportunity for me,” says Benning, acknowledging that his father helped him with his decision. “There are a lot of scouts and I’m looking to go to college sometime soon so it was the best opportunity for me.
“Sometimes I get passed by at home because a lot of good players go to the Western League so it’s just a better opportunity for me here.”
Benning says he was surprised his name was called on draft day.
“I was actually studying for final exams,” he admits, sheepishly. “I had to take a 10-minute break.”
Follow Tom Schreier on Twitter via @tschreier3