When the NHL season began in October, it was inconceivable that Tyler Benson could go three weeks — let alone nearly three months — without scoring a goal and maintain a roster spot on the Edmonton Oilers.
Even now, after all the unusual twists and turns of this pandemic-affected NHL season, it’s still hard to believe. But 2021-22 has been all about the reinvention of Benson, an erstwhile scoring sensation who has found new life as the prototypical depth forward.
Through 17 appearances this season with the Oilers, the 23-year-old’s offensive output comprises all of one assist. This from a left winger who, while playing for Edmonton’s Southside Athletic Club at age 14, set the Alberta Bantam AAA single-season record with 146 points in just 33 games, then piled up 184 points over his junior career with the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants. Since going pro, he has set the Bakersfield Condors’ single-season points record and has become the American Hockey League (AHL) team’s all-time assist leader.
But after years of trying to make it as a scorer, Benson has figured out that the only way he’s going to carve out a career in the NHL is as a bottom-6 forward who can provide energy, physicality, and be counted on just as much — if not more — for his checking as his scoring.
Benson’s Role With Oilers Increasing
It’s not just that Benson has managed to stick with the Oilers, but he’s now staking claim to a regular role in their lineup. After a couple tough nights earlier this season, he looks increasingly more comfortable in his new skin, and Oilers coach Dave Tippett seems to like what he sees, elevating Benson to Edmonton’s third line this week for games against the New York Rangers on Monday (Jan. 3) and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday (Jan. 5).
Although Edmonton lost 4-1 in New York, it wasn’t for lack of positive contribute from Benson, who had what is widely considered his best NHL game yet. On the big stage at Madison Square Garden, he played aggressive yet defensively responsible hockey and showed that he hasn’t lost his offensive touch, picking up his first point of 2021-22 from a beautiful pass that set up Ryan McLeod for the Oilers’ only goal. Benson finished the night with one assist, one block, and one hit, to go with a plus-1 rating in 13:38.
Benson has now logged more than 10 minutes in each of his last four appearances; he hadn’t cracked double digits once in his first 13 games this season.
Benson’s Long & Winding Road to the NHL
This version of Benson is probably not what the Oilers envisioned when they drafted him 32nd overall in 2016. The Edmonton product was coming off an injury-shortened campaign with the Giants in which he still managed to put up 28 points in 30 games.
Benson’s first cup of NHL coffee, one assist and a minus-1 rating over seven games with the Oilers in February 2020, wasn’t so hot. The 6-foot winger didn’t even get a single game with the Oilers last season and factored so little into their future that he was left unprotected this summer in the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft.
Many thought the Kraken would select Benson, but Seattle pulled something of a coup and signed Oilers unrestricted free agent (UFA) defenseman Adam Larsson. The Oilers then signed Benson to a one-year, two-way contract extension that effectively represented his last chance in Edmonton.
Benson Provides Reasons for Excitement
There are many examples of players who lit up the scoreboard in junior, only to be forced to reinvent themselves when that offensive ability doesn’t transition to the pros. There are even more players who weren’t successfully able to adapt to a non-scoring role.
It speaks volumes that Benson has so embraced completely remaking himself, and a testament to his dedication that he’s evolving so quickly as he recreates himself more or less on the fly. The young forward is earning greater opportunity, and it is exciting to think of the player he might yet become as he gains more experience in this role and is able to further build other dimensions of his game.
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Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.