In the matter of the last six weeks, Tyler Benson has seemingly migrated from “strong candidate for the roster” to “the forgotten man”.
Early in the summer, er, I mean, off-season, when Oiler fans were discussing the NHL roster and assembling line combinations, Benson was in the mix, potentially as the third line left winger and potentially on McDavid’s left-wing, in time.
On November 2, the Oilers signed Dominic Kahun and, in an instant, the open top 6 left-wing spot was filled, Tyler Ennis was slotted on to the third line and, with James Neal and Joakim Nygard in the mix on the left side, Tyler Benson’s opportunity for an opening day roster spot all but disappear.
Of course, injuries happen, players struggle and opportunities arise. This Oiler fan remains confident that Tyler Benson will indeed see NHL games this and, as the 11th rated “youngster” in an organization now deep in young and promising talent, the voters haven’t given up on the “forgotten man”.
We all know the story about the local kid who had been talked about in Edmonton well before he even played junior hockey. Once considered for “exceptional status” in to the Western Hockey League and touted as a potential high first-round draft pick, injuries through his junior career had him fall to the 2nd round and the Oilers grabbed Edmonton kid with the 32nd pick in the 2016 entry draft.
After continuing to battle injuries in his draft plus 1 year Benson played almost a full season for the Giants in his draft plus 2 year and had a very good offensive season with 27 goals and 69 points in 58 games. He continued to get his offensive confidence and game back in his first-year pro with a sensational 20-year old season in Bakersfield culminating with 66 points in 68 games - Nearly a point a game player as a 20-year old rookie.
In September 2019, Benson came in to Oilers’ training camp with a perceived real shot at the 2019/20 opening night roster but, similar to his AHL linemate, Cooper Marody, Benson had a pedestrian camp and was re-assigned to Bakersfield earlier than expected. Also similar to Marody, Benson’s second pro season in Bakersfield didn’t go as smoothly as his first as his production regressed to only 9 goals and 36 points in 47 games on a Bakersfield team that struggled all year long with injuries and key players lost to the NHL team.
Benson did get a couple cups of coffee in the NHL. After being re-assigned to Bakersfield after his first few NHL games in early February, he was recalled to replace James Neal on the roster and looked more comfortable with the speed of the game. Benson ended up with his first NHL point, the assist being his only point in a total of 7 games.
While the season was ultimately a bit disappointing given the expectations heading in to training camp, Benson did show NHL skills. His assist showed his primary talents - his vision, offensive IQ and ability to distribute the puck in the offensive zone - a beautiful soft-hands pass to Archibald for a quick break goal.
While offence is Benson’s calling card, he is also a surprisingly and unbecoming gritty player on the boards who isn’t afraid to engage physically and go to the hard areas of the ice. Benson has shown the offensive talent and IQ to play in the NHL and the 2-way responsibility to stay in the league but his main deficiency remains his skating. Benson is an average skater and the NHL is increasingly becoming a speed league. While the lingering effects from his injuries during his prime development years (mainly the sports hernia) may preclude him from ever finding that extra step that he covets, given Benson is known for a tireless work ethic, we shouldn’t be surprised if he does indeed work that extra step in to his game. If he does, the Oilers may have another legit top 6 option going forward.
Benson is currently on loan to the GC Kusnacht Lions of the Swiss League where he is a primary offensive contributor for the team putting up 12 points in 10 games, tying him for the team lead despite playing 5 fewer games. Imagine if he didn’t miss those 5 games recovering from Covid in mid-October?
From recent reports (credit; David Staples), Benson looks much faster and quicker but it’s not known if that is a function of the bigger ice and slower league or marked progression in his skating. Benson is also playing on the PK for the Lions and, from accounts, has been very effective in the role.
Benson will be recalled for NHL training camp once (and if) it goes ahead and will compete for a roster spot. Given the left-wing depth chart, he’s likely to be assigned prior to the season, however, once there is an injury to a skill winger, Benson will likely be in the conversation for the re-call and an opportunity to show he’s NHL ready.