Expansion Draft Forces Oilers to Decide Where They Stand on Benson & Kassian

We’re now just hours away from the deadline on Saturday (July 17) for teams to submit their protected lists for the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. The draft goes Wednesday (July 21), when the Seattle Kraken will select one player from each NHL team excluding the Vegas Golden Knights.

Protected lists can comprise one of two combinations: Option A is seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie; Option B is eight skaters (forwards/defensemen) and one goalie. Players with no-movement clauses that decline to waive the clause must be protected. All first- and second-year professionals, and all unsigned draft choices, are exempt from selection.

Edmonton’s Protected List

Barring a surprise transaction before the deadline, the Edmonton Oilers will be protecting the combination of seven forwards, three blueliners, and one goaltender.

Eight skaters are virtual locks to be on Edmonton’s protected list: Ethan Bear, Duncan Keith, and Darnell Nurse on the back end; Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Kailer Yamamoto up front.

The remaining forward spots will most likely be filled by Josh Archibald and/or Tyler Benson, and/or Zack Kassian. When it comes to the latter two, this represents a moment of truth for the Oilers.

Edmonton is not getting what they should from either winger, albeit for vastly different reasons. And with both likely to be selected by Seattle if left exposed, it’s time for the team to fish or cut bait. Here’s where the Oilers find themselves when deciding whether to protect Benson and Kassian.

Tyler Benson

In the case of 23-year-old Benson, it’s not so much what the skillful left winger has failed to do as the opportunity Edmonton has failed to provide him.

Drafted 32nd overall in 2016, Benson’s NHL experience is limited to just seven games with the Oilers in the 2019-20 season. The former Vancouver Giants star has been toiling in the American Hockey League since turning pro in 2018, putting up 141 points in 156 games with the Bakersfield Condors. He was named to AHL All-Rookie Team and AHL Second All-Star Team in 2019 and the 2020 AHL All-Star Classic.

This past season, Benson had 10 goals and 26 assists in 36 regular-season games. He then added three goals and two assists in six postseason games and scored the Pacific Division championship series-winning goal the Condors captured the John D. Chick trophy.

Having proven all he can over three seasons in the minors, Benson is overdue for a look at the next level, and more than the cup of coffee he got in February 2020, when he averaged just over 10 minutes of ice time during his short Oilers call-up before being sent back to Bakersfield.

Benson is an RFA, his entry-level contract having expired at the 2020-21 season’s end. Considering Edmonton lacks depth on the left wing, and Benson will come relatively cheap, logic suggests that Oilers general manager Ken Holland and coach Dave Tippett give the Edmonton product a shot.

If Edmonton’s decision-makers don’t believe in Benson or see him as part of the team’s future, they could still find value in Benson as a tradable asset.

Zack Kassian

Kassian has been teasing the Oilers ever since the right winger was dealt to Edmonton by the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for goalie Ben Scrivens midway through the 2015-16 season.

At his best, the 6-foot-3, 211-pound power forward is a terror, crashing the net, chipping in goals, throwing his weight around and making any opponent who might take a cheap shot at McDavid think twice. Kassian has even had extended stints playing with the two-time Hart Trophy winner on Edmonton’s top line.

At his worst, Kassian plays an undisciplined game, going through the motions without drive or focus, and having no negligible impact on the game unless he’s taking a bad penalty. His vanishing act has led to him being a healthy scratch on multiple occasions.

Zack Kassian Edmonton Oilers
Zack Kassian of the Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Kassian reached his peak with the Oilers two seasons ago, when he was awarded a four-year contract extension worth $12.8 million. Coming off a career-high 15 goals in 79 games in 2018-19, Kassian scored 13 goals in 34 games to start the 2019-20 season, but he has since totaled just four goals in his last 52 regular-season appearances with the Oilers. The 30-year-old veteran had just two goals and three assists in 2020-21, before playing his best hockey during Edmonton’s abbreviated playoff run, notching a goal and assist in four games against the Winnipeg Jets.

The argument in Kassian’s favor has long been that he can be something of a unicorn, a physical presence with a scoring touch that is otherwise absent in Edmonton’s lineup. The problem is, he is rarely providing it. And while he is the only Oiler that remotely resembles an enforcer, it’s valid to question whether such a player is needed to succeed in the NHL circa 2021.

The expansion draft gives Edmonton a chance at divesting themselves of Kassian’s contract, which carries a cap hit of $3.2 million for three more seasons.

Insiders, including TSN’s Craig Button, project the Oilers will protect Archibald and Kassian while leaving Benson exposed, but as demonstrated with his trade with the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday (July 12) for Keith, one can never be sure what to expect from Holland. Stay tuned.

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