Like several of his peers, Mike Benning spent his rookie year navigating the jump to the pro game.

But even during that transition, there was a clear facet to his game that stood out from game one to the final horn.

“He’s super competitive,” said head coach Geordie Kinnear. “With and without the puck.”

It’s that edge that helped make Benning a standout player at the University of Denver, a National Champion and a fourth-round pick by Florida in 2020.

“If you look at the playoffs, he wanted the puck on his stick the whole game,” said Kinnear. “He wanted to put it in the back of the net to win the hockey game.”

The 22-year-old was thrown right into the fray as a pro, seeing the ice in key moments and stepping up when called upon.

“We’re not a staff that tries to hide young players from situations as long as it’s warranted,” said Kinnear. “Benny deserved all that he got - he played against top guys and did a great job with it.”

Benning finished second among Charlotte blue liners in points, trailing only AHL All Star Lucas Carlsson - whose season-ending injury created a hole on the back end for the Checkers. After that, the coaching staff turned in part to Benning to help fill in.

“To have their trust, it’s a big positive,” said Benning. “It’s something that you need to gain in a relationship with the coach as a player. I’m glad I can be the guy that they can lean on when a guy like Carl - who’s been awesome for us all year, he’s been a leader - goes down. It’s tough to see. But guys have to step up and it was good that I got that opportunity.”

Benning’s skillset coming into the season was the offensive side of his game - he was named the conference Best Offensive Defenseman in his senior year at Denver - and he certainly brought plenty of puck-moving ability to the Charlotte blue line in his rookie campaign. But it was the rest of his game that really trended up throughout the year.

“I think my defensive game has increasingly grown,” said Benning. “I think all aspects were growing - offensive ability, playmaking, everything. I think the staff has helped me out tremendously with that. Sags [assistant coach Bobby Sanguinetti] on the back end, he’s kind of been a godfather moving me forward through it.”

Benning shouldered increased responsibility on the ice in year one and took the challenge head on. Off the ice, the rookie leaned on his teammates to help in his adjustment from the college ranks to the next level.

“Me being a first year player, there was a lot of learning curves,” he said. “But we had a lot of good leaders in there that could help you through the way - Dalps, Gerry, Fitzy, Knighter - all those guys. They were a big help in my development.”

After a rookie year full of navigating the pro game, producing points and bringing his competitiveness to the rink every day, Benning is heading into the summer looking to clean some things up for year two.

“You want to take the knicks and knacks out of your game,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to look forward to.”