It’s been just over three years since an article appeared in this very spot suggesting the Edmonton Oilers might have stolen Tyler Benson with 32nd pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. While they and every other organization not named the Chicago Blackhawks missed the boat on Alex DeBrincat, the former Vancouver Giants standout seems poised to take a run at becoming an NHL regular this fall.
After putting together what can only be viewed as a successful transition to the pro game during his first full season with the Bakersfield Condors in 2018-19, (15 G -51 A -66 Pts), expecting the Edmonton native to make that final leap doesn’t seem too farfetched. Though many have accused the Oilers of rushing prospects, outside of the recent mess with Jesse Puljujarvi, it has rarely been an issue.
The Door Is Wide Open
Now, if we are talking about putting an unreasonable ask on a youngster, with minimal support, and hoping he gets to the place the organization wants, that is an entirely separate conversation. Some would disagree but in my mind, thrusting a kid into a role he is nowhere near capable of filling and giving him an opportunity to play on a nightly basis at this level are two entirely different animals.
In the case of Benson, the expectation for this season would fall into category number two. Be it playing sheltered minutes on a line with a pair of veterans like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal or in a third line support role as a solid two-way winger who chips with the occasional goal from time to time, both should be looked upon as being reasonable asks for a player with his pedigree.
Let’s not forget, we are talking about a player who was selected where he was in his draft year because of injury. There were some who viewed Benson as having an outside shot of being drafted inside the Top Ten but most viewed him as a guy who seemed destined to go somewhere in the low to mid-teens. Unfortunately for him, that’s not how things played out but final draft positioning isn’t everything.
Oilers Need More Skill Upfront
The talent and high-end skill that once had scouts referring to him as a potential can’t miss prospect didn’t disappear overnight. Benson is still a guy who has NHL player written all over him but again, injury and subsequent inconsistencies in his game meant he needed more time to get to where he once was. Those steps were taken last season in Bakersfield, which makes Edmonton the next logical step.
At 21-years of age, 70+ games in the AHL and four seasons of WHL hockey on his resume, Benson is not exactly lacking in-game action. After all, we are not talking about an 18-year old kid coming straight out of junior looking to claim a spot on an NHL roster. Instead, we have a player who was among the most trusted pieces that Condors head coach Jay Woodcroft felt he had at his disposal last season.
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Not too shabby for a guy who was playing in his rookie year at the pro level, on a team that enjoyed a successful campaign and on a roster that had a healthy mix of both young and veteran players. Not surprisingly, this has some viewing Benson as a potential “dark horse” to break camp with the big club and who could blame them. However, if you ask me, the phrase “dark horse” wouldn’t even be part of the discussion.
Oilers Have Top Six Spot Up for Grabs
With due respect to the names currently on the Oilers training camp roster, only Neal, Nugent-Hopkins, Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid can be viewed as top-six forwards. Alex Chiasson and Zack Kassian saw extended time on one of the top two lines through much of 2018-19 and enjoyed career seasons. Could one potentially stay in the mix for the coming season? Sure they could but I just can’t see both having a repeat performance.
In other words, there is a need for at least one, if not two, wingers on the Oilers top two lines. Again, looking at the roster there isn’t much there to suggest either role can be filled from within. Hence, why Benson looks to be such an intriguing option and with Puljujarvi no longer in the equation, the opportunity is there for the taking. Now it’s up to the kid to step up and grab a spot with both hands.
If his first two performances in rookie camp against the Calgary Flames rookies were any indication of what to expect, Benson will be back in Bakersfield to start the season. The thing is, good or bad, those games are not going to impact whether or not he sticks with the club. Now that training camp is officially underway, the time to turn heads and make it an easy decision for the organization is now at hand.
At the end of this exercise, whether Tyler Benson makes the Edmonton Oilers straight out of training camp, finds his way here later in the season or next October, this team is counting on him being an impact piece for the foreseeable future. Time will tell whether or not he ends up being one of the “steals” of the 2016 Entry Draft but he looks to be headed in the right direction.
Rob Soria is the Author of Connor McDavid: Hockey’s Next Great One. He has chronicled the Orange and Blue since creating his Oil Drop blog in 2011 and has also had his writings featured over at HometownHockey.ca and Vavel USA, where he has covered the NHL, MLB and ATP Tour. Rob was born, raised and still resides in Edmonton, Alberta and can be reached via twitter @Oil_Drop.