After one pro season, any question marks are now exclamation points around Edmonton Oilers top prospect Tyler Benson.
He’s gone from: “God, we hope he can stay healthy,” to: “He looks like he could be a top-nine NHL forward soon.”
This is what happens on the hockey carousel with a farmhand, who battled a run of debilitating junior injuries, but in his first kick at the can as a pro he had a fantastic season. He made the AHL’s second all-star team, along with the All-Rookie first team after finishing eighth in league scoring with 66 points in 68 games. His 51 assists were the most by a rookie in 11 years, going back to one-time Oilers player Teddy Purcell, who had 58 for the Manchester Monarchs, Los Angeles’ farm squad in 2007-08.
“At the beginning of the year, if you had told me this would be how the season would go, I’d have been very excited. Coach (Jay Woodcroft) pulled me aside before practice and told me. It’s pretty special,” said Benson, who knows he has to work on skating more than Oilers coach David Pelletier as he did this past summer, but his hands don’t need work.
Benson may be one of those playmaking wingers when he gets to the Oilers, more like Jonathan Huberdeau in Florida than David Pastrnak in Boston. Or, to turn back the clock, Ales Hemsky in his days here, without Hemsky’s foot-speed and ability to go end-to-end, then pass it off as Hemsky so often did.
Benson and his centre, Cooper Marody, (64 points, 58 games) are a lot alike on the farm.
“Tyler’s a gifted passer,” said Woodcroft. “This guy makes plays.”
“Yet he’s in the top two on our team in shots (173) so he’s embraced that part as well. He’s not one-dimensional and he’s really worked on that. Playing with Cooper is something to see, too. They’re ethereal people, the way they see the game is similar so that’s why they have chemistry.”
Benson, who just turned 21, does see himself as more passer than shooter like Huberdeau who had 30 goals and 62 assists in Florida this past season..
“I’ve always been more an assist than a goal guy. When I get the puck, I’m usually looking to play a play. My vision on the ice is one of my best things. I like to find teammates on the ice in the O-zone or breakouts,” he said. “I do shoot too for rebounds. That’s another way to get assists. And towards the end of the season, I started to finish more of my chances (15 goals).”
While Josh Currie (27 goals), Joe Gambardella (29) and Marody got called up this season, with Currie getting 21 games, Gambardella 15 and Marody six, Benson didn’t get a sniff even as a late-season perk because they wanted him on the farm for the whole year. The Oilers have rushed Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi to the NHL as first-round picks (Yamamoto 26 games, one goal, five points over two years; Puljujarvi 139 games, 17 goals, 37 points, over three seasons), but they’ve changed their plan.
Interim GM Keith Gretzky wants the draft picks percolating in the minors.
“We’ll see with Tyler. If it takes another three months (in the minors) or whatever,” said Gretzky.
But Benson wasn’t disappointed.
“I thought I might get a chance but I was happy for the guys who were called up and I was always watching how they were playing. I didn’t want to let it (no call-up) weigh on me,” he said. “Now that the season’s over, there’s nothing to worry about except the team here and the playoffs.”
Benson, who was able to get through the season completely healthy after playing just 183 games in junior over four seasons with Vancouver Giants (hernia, cyst on his tailbone and other ailments) was kept abreast what the Oilers thinking, through Woodcroft.
“They wanted me to have a full season to build my game so when I do make the step, I’ll be ready,” he said. “I’m not sure what the roster will look like next year, but I’ll be training to make the team.”
He knows his skating has to improve.
“I worked on it all last summer and during the season, and will again this summer with David (Pelletier). To make the step to where I can be a top line player in the NHL, I have to be able to separate myself from checkers, create some open space for yourself and get in on the forecheck,” he said.
But, his body’s in one piece, and so his head-space.
“It was huge for me to get through the entire year (healthy),” said Benson, who would have been a first-round pick in 2016 but for his medical history, with Oilers taking a run at him with the 32nd overall selection.
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