Tyler Benson burst onto the hockey scene in 2012/2013 when he shattered the AMBHL (Alberta Bantam AAA) scoring title by racking up a ridiculous 57 goals and 146 points in only 33 games for the Southside Athletic Club. He was physically dominant at 14 years of age and not surprisingly went first overall in the 2013 WHL Bantam draft to the Vancouver Giants.
In 2014/2015 he had a solid rookie campaign with the Giants, producing 14-31-45 in 62 games. He was selected as the captain the following season, but a hip injury limited him to only 30 games where he scored 9-19-28. He played with discomfort for much of those 30 games. Despite the injuries the Edmonton Oilers selected him 32nd overall in the 2016 NHL draft.
He returned to junior, but now his other hip was giving him problems and he produced 11-31-42 in only 33 games. He attended Oilers training camp in 2017, but he didn’t skate. He was still rehabbing and the remained in Edmonton until the Oilers medical staff was certain he was fully healed.
He returned to Vancouver for his fourth WHL season and scored 27 goals and 62 points in 58 games. Most importantly, he was healthy, and for the first time in three years, he was able to train the entire off-season. He came to training camp in the best shape of his life, pain free, and had an excellent rookie season in the American League, producing 15 goals and 66 points in 68 games.
He played every game. It was the most enjoyable season he’s had in years, because there was almost no time spent with the medical staff.
Benson was a guest in the TSN 1260 Celebrity golf tournament yesterday and after his round, we spoke about his breakout rookie season in Bakersfield and how much he appreciates being healthy.
“Just playing all of last year I felt stronger on the puck, stronger on my skates, I just felt way better on the ice,” smiled Benson. “Going into practices and games I didn’t have aches or pains so mentally I was a lot more confident in myself.”
Benson’s 66 points were the second-most by an AHL rookie in the past seven years, second only to Alex Barre-Boulet, who had 68 points in 74 games with Syracuse this season.
His 2018 summer of training was the catalyst for his outstanding AHL rookie season, and he will begin is off-season training today with Chad Drummond. He can’t wait. Being healthy has allowed him to train harder, longer and to become a better player.
And his mindset when he shows up at Oilers training camp in September will be much different than it was last year.
“That is fair. I wasn’t sure how it would go last year, but after my first few weeks in the AHL I felt I could play at that level and I just wanted to keep improving my game. As the year went along I got better and better, and now I’m going to keep working through the summer and try and make the team (Oilers) out of camp,” said Benson.
He wasn’t NHL ready last year. He wasn’t strong enough. He wasn’t confident enough, based mainly having one proper off-season of training in four years.
But this year is different. There is no guarantee he will make it, but last season he proved to himself he is very close and the next three months he plans to put himself into an even better position to compete for a spot.
IMPROVEMENT ON ICE
Being healthy has allowed him to get stronger, quicker, work on his shot and most importantly be in a better frame of mind. He focuses on what he can do, not what he is unable to do due to an injury.
But he still wanted to improve on the ice and a year in the AHL has made him a better player.
I asked what area of his game improved the most last year.
“The one thing Woody (Jay Woodcroft) and I worked on a lot was just live to fight another day. One of my favourite things to do is every time I get the puck I want to make a play, I want to find someone, but sometimes that hurts me and leads to a turnover. Just make the simple play is something he helped me with this year. I worked on it a lot and I think it really helped improve my overall game,” he replied.
That’s precisely why the majority of players will benefit from time in the AHL. Only a small percentage of players are ready to go from Junior, Europe or the NCAA directly to the NHL. The rest need time to hone their skills and improve different areas of their game.
Benson is a more patient player now. The game slowed down for him as the season progressed. He’s always been a reliable player, even since I watched him in Bantam. Yes, he was more skilled than most of the players, but I found his consistency at a young age stood out.
How did he learn that at such an early age?
“I like to play an all around game,” said Benson. “So even if I’m not able to produce offensively I like to think I’m a hard forechecker and I can play a hard game regardless of how my offence is going. I got my work ethic from my father and he instilled that in me before every game.”
Recently long-time NHL head coach Ken Hitchcock told me felt one of Benson’s best assets is his play between the boards and faceoff dot. He makes the right play the majority of the time, and if you are going to play in the NHL, on a regular basis, that skill set is a huge advantage. Benson described why he feels he is good in that area, especially in his own end.
“One thing I like to do is check to see where my teammates are before I get the puck. Have my head up. When I see the D-man is looking to get me the puck, I take a quick peek to see where my centre is. I’m always looking for the next play, and that’s something I’ve always worked on. You have to anticipate the next play.”
The one element of his game that he needs to work on is become more selfish with the puck. Shoot it more. He only had four goals at Christmas and Woodcroft challenged Benson to become more assertive shooting the puck. He scored 11 goals in the second half of the season, but admitted changing his pass-first mentality is a still a work in progress.
“I believe I have a good enough shot to score goals, so the thing that will change is my mentally going into games. When I have a chance to shoot, just shoot it instead of always looking for the pass. I got caught doing that a little too much this year, and if I just shoot the puck more, then more pucks will go in,” said Benson.
I’m not comparing him to Leon Draisaitl, but Draisaitl had to alter his approach mid-season, and it resulted in him scoring 50 goals. He spent a lot of time after practicing shooting from different areas. Just trying to build more of a shoot-first mentality. Draisaitl scored 29 goals in the final 43 games, the most in the NHL, and he fired 128 shots, tied for 24th among forwards. In the first 39 games, he only had 103 shots, tied for 54th among forwards.
Benson isn’t going to become a 50-goal scorer in the NHL, but if he plays the left wing with Connor McDavid, Draisaitl or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the future, he will get some quality chances. Continuing to think about shooting, even a little more frequently, will be a huge benefit to him in the future.
Is he NHL ready? It is impossible to say, but if we look at recent history his production in the AHL does give us some insight into the type of player he might become in the NHL. I believe very strongly, at worst, he is going to be a solid third line player — someone who is responsible defensively, can kill penalties and chip in offensively. But he has the potential, and ability, to be a solid top-six NHL forward. When that occurs is hard to answer accurately.
Here is a look at AHL rookies who scored 50+ points over the past five seasons.
Player GP G-A-PTS PPPoints +/- Age
Alex Barre-Boulet 74 24-24-68 27 +16 21
Tyler Benson 68 15-51-66 24 +21 20
Cooper Marody 58 19-45-64 19 +31 22
Drake Batherson 59 22-40-62 22 +15 20
Martin Necas 64 16-36-52 18 +20 19
Player GP G-A-PTS PPPoints +/- Age
Mason Appleton 76 22-44-66 21 +14 21
Daniel Sprong 65 32-33-65 19 +4 20
Dylan Strome 50 22-31-53 24 +8 20
Mathieu Joseph 70 15-38-53 20 +10 20
Justin Kloos 76 19-31-50 19 -12 23
Appleton split last season between the AHL, 32 points in 40 games, and in Winnipeg with 3-7-10 in 36 games with the Jets.
Sprong played 16 games with Pittsburgh, but was a healthy scratch often before being traded to Anaheim. He scored 14 goals and 19 points in 47 games with the Ducks.
Strome did play 21 NHL games in 2017/2018 with Arizona, and last year he had 3-3-6 in 20 games before being traded to Chicago. He ripped it up with the Blackhawks producing 17-34-51 in 58 games.
Joseph played in Tampa Bay and produced 13-13-26 in a bottom six role on a very deep team.
Kloos was in the AHL last year, 34 games with Iowa (Wild) and 25 games with San Diego (Ducks) and produced a total of 18-27-45.
Player GP G-A-PTS PPPoints +/- Age
Danny O’Regan 63 23-35-58 25 +6 22
Mark Jankowski 64 27-29-56 19 +19 22
Evgeny Svechnikov 74 19-33-52 18 0 20
Andrew Poturalski 74 19-33-52 11 +1 22
Jake Debrusk 70 19-30-49 12 +11 20
O’Regan has played the past two seasons in the AHL racking up 40 and 48 points. He was traded from the Sharks to the Sabres during the 2018 season and has played a total of three games with the Sabres over the past two seasons.
Jankowski played the next two years with the Flames. He had 17-8-25 in 2018 and 14-18-32 last year playing predominantly on the third line. He led the Flames in SH goals.
Svechnikov remained in the AHL in 2018, but struggled scoring 7-16-23 in 57 games. He did play 14 games with Detroit and tallied 2-2-4. Last September he tore his ACL in the Red Wings final preseason game and missed the entire season.
Poturalski spent the past two seasons in the AHL scoring 49 points in 2018 and he had 70 this year. He leads the AHL in playoff scoring this year for the Charlotte Checkers as they are up 2-1 in the Calder Cup Final against Chicago.
Debrusk has played the past two seasons in Boston scoring 43 and 42 points, including 27 goals this season. He is a solid second line winger for the Bruins.
Player GP G-A-PTS PPPoints +/- Age
Austin Czarnik 68 20-41-61 27 +17 23
Mikko Rantanen 52 24-36-60 16 +20 19
Riley Barber 74 26-29-55 20 +4 21
Frank Vatrano 36 36-19-55 18 +21 21
Matt Lorito 71 18-36-54 24 +16
Jason Dickenson 73 22-31-53 16 +10 20
Travis Boyd 76 21-32-53 20 +6 22
Vinnie Hinostroza 66 18-33-51 14 +7 21
Czarnik, an undrafted UFA signing, split the next year between Boston, 49 GP, and Providence, 22 GP. In 2018 he played only ten games in Boston, but scored 69 points in 64 games in the AHL. He signed as a UFA with Calgary and in 54 games he produced 18 points. Interesting side note about Czarnik: He chose Calgary over Edmonton as a free agent, because he felt he get a better chance on RW in Calgary. That is some bad advice from his agent. The Oilers RW depth chart was wide open, but he felt Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto would get more chances.
Rantanen has emerged as an elite NHL talent producing 38, 84 and 87 points over the past three seasons after his AHL season.
Barber has spent the past three seasons in the AHL producing 27, 38 and 60 points. He has played three games with the Washington Capitals.
Vatrano lit up the AHL and after 36 games he was recalled to the Bruins and played 39 games in 2016 producing 8-3-11. The next year he got injured and had 18 points in 44 games with Boston. In 2018 he was traded to Florida and in a total of 41 games between the two organizations he produced seven goals and ten points. This past season, his first full season, and healthy, he tallied 24-15-39 in 81 games for Florida.
Lorito, undrafted UFA signing, has remained in the AHL producing 56, 49 and 16 point-seasons (injured, only 23GP). He did play two NHL games with Detroit in 2017.
Dickinson had 30 points in 58 AHL games in 2017, then he had 18 goals in 42 games in 2017, and played 27 games with the Dallas Stars producing two points. This past season he played all year in Dallas, 67 games, and produced 6-16-22 in a bottom six role.
Boyd scored 63 and 47 points the next two seasons in the AHL, and this season he played 53 games with the Washington Capitals producing 5-15-20.
Hinostroza played 49 games with the Blackhawks in 2017 (6-8-14), then he had 25 points in 50 games in 2018 and scored 16-23-39 in 72 games with Arizona last year.
Player GP G-A-PTS PPPoints +/- Age
Connor Brown 76 21-40-61 16 +24 20
Charles Hudon 75 19-38-57 13 +5 20
Viktor Arvidsson 70 22-33-55 17 +1 21
Brendan Leipsic 74 14-40-54 19 +5 20
Brown scored 29 points in 34 games the following year in the AHL, then in 2017 as an NHL rookie with the Maple Leafs he produced 20-16-36. He has 28 and 29 points the past two season in Toronto.
Hudon produced 53 and 49 points the next two seasons in the AHL. In 2018 he made the Montreal Canadiens and in 72 games tallied 10-20-30. He only played 32 games last due to some injuries, but also he was a healthy scratch frequently.
Arvidsson started the 2016 season in the AHL and produced 18 points in 17 games before being recalled to Nashville. He tallied 8-8-16 in 56 games that season. Over the past three years, he has scored 31, 29 and 34 goals with the Predators. He’s become a top-line winger for them.
Leipsic scored 20-34-54 in 65 AHL games in 2016, and had 51 points in 49 games in 2017 in the AHL. The past two seasons he has played 58 and 62 games in the NHL split between Vegas, Vancouver and Los Angeles. He has 45 points over the past two NHL seasons.
When you produce as many points as Benson did in the AHL at 20 years of age, history tells us there is a very good chance he will become an NHL player. How productive he becomes depends on many factors, but his hockey sense and his consistency make him a strong candidate, in my eyes, to be a top-six forward in the future. The other important factor is opportunity and quality of linemates. The Oilers have very good centres, and the left wing depth chart is wide open.
Ken Holland has historically been very patient with players, but if a player is ready he won’t hesitate to keep him with the big club.
Being healthy for two consecutive summers will allow Benson to come to training camp this fall and compete for a job.
He will be an NHL player, it’s just a matter of when. Don’t be surprised if it happens this October.