Tyler Benson is ready for another shot on the wing for the Edmonton Oilers. And if this were any other season it’s hard to imagine that Benson would not get it.
He’s killing it like never before as a scoring winger in the AHL.
The Oilers, meanwhile, are looking for a left winger who has the skill and hockey IQ to keep up with Leon Draisaitl or Connor McDavid on a top line.
Outside of players on the Edmonton roster — not one of whom has seized that Top 6 left wing job save for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — Benson is the best bet.
But, of course, the COVID lockdown is in the way of any Benson recall. If Edmonton were to recall him to the team’s taxi squad, he’d have to go through a two-week quarantine, then another week of practice, just as d-man Theodor Lennstrom has done. Maybe the COVID rigamarole will work out for Lennstrom and he’ll get into a few games in Edmonton. Maybe not, though, if the Oilers stay healthy on the blueline.
As for Benson, maybe it’s worth calling him up even if he’ll have to sit. He’s certainly got little to prove any longer in the AHL.
I say this having often watched him play there and in Edmonton the past few years, and again Wednesday evening as his Condors beat the San Jose Barracuda 4-3 in OT, with Benson scoring both in regulation time and in the shootout.
Here’s my take on him and some of the other Condors:
- Tyler Benson, who just turned 23, is second in AHL scoring this year with 21 points in 16 games, behind only his linemate Cooper Marody, 24. Both are in the last years of their Entry Level Contracts. Against San Jose, Benson looked quick, quicker than I’ve ever seen him in the past. Maybe I’m imagining it, but he seemed to have extra pop in his skates. He scored on a quick slot shot off a great feed from Marody, 24, who looks fully healthy again and is back to being the Patrick Kane of the AHL. As always, what impressed most about Benson was his passing. He’s got great vision and hands, along with the ability to make a stick-to-stick laser pass in traffic. It’s hard not to imagine him on a line with Kailer Yamamoto and Leon Draisaitl, him winning the puck and setting up either of them for a quick and dangerous shot. Right now Dominik Kahun has this job and he’s been OK at it. He’s certainly had fine moments with and without the puck. But I wonder if Benson isn’t that much better of a passer than Kahun and about equal to him at other parts of the game. We won’t know until Benson gets an audition with the Oilers.
- Markus Niemelainen. Benson was the 32nd pick of the 2016 draft, with Niemelainen the 63rd overall pick. At the time I was impressed with his size, wingspan and skating skills. He moved awfully well for such a big man, 6-feet, 6-inches, 190-pounds. But in following years Niemelainen didn’t seem to develop much of an offensive game. He’s scored just seven goals in the five seasons since his draft year. And when I saw him play a few games in the top Finnish league this fall for Assat Pori, I was disappointed. Not only did he have trouble making solid plays with the puck, he also looked far slower than I remembered him. The only thing I could think was that maybe he was sick or injured at that time, and that explained his tepid play. I’ve heard solid reports from Oilers fans regularly watching Bakersfield games, talk of Niemelainen being a big, fast and tough d-man in the William Lagesson mode so far this year. Based on my first impression of him this year against San Jose, I’m willing to go along with that positive assessment. Teamed on a pairing with former Oilers d-man Ken Gravel, Niemelainen played a fast, tough and aggressive game, and his puck-moving was fine. Not great, but he made some sharp outlet passes. The Oilers have a useful prospect here, someone who can play a few NHL games next year if the Oilers lose a left d-man like Lagesson or Caleb Jones to Seattle in the expansion draft, as now seems likely.
- Ryan McLeod, 21. McLeod has 17 points in 18 games playing centre with Benson and Marody. It’s a prime spot to succeed and he’s certainly putting up the points. When I watched him in Switzerland this year I saw a big, fast and skilled player, but one who still needs to ramp up his defensive intensity and reads, especially in the defensive slot. I’ve only seen him in the San Jose game in the AHL this year, but he struggled on defence in this one, being a primary culprit on two San Jose goals, once due to a turnover, the other time because he failed to cut out a dangerous pass, then pick up a shooter in the slot. This wasn’t his game. But I don’t make much of that and look forward to seeing him play more for the Condors. His offensive upside is being realized in the Bake, which speaks well of his future.
- Overall, the Bakersfield team looked strong, and this is a squad that’s about to be bolstered with a great deal of incoming talent, players coming from Europe such as Raphael Lavoie, Philip Broberg and Phil Kemp, and with Michael Kesselring coming from US college hockey. The Condors are loaded with solid veteran players, such as Adam Cracknell, Gravel, Ryan Stanton, Brad Malone, Joe Gambardella, Luke Esposito, and Seth Griffin. Just a few years ago, Griffin had almost as much shine to his game and hope for his future as Benson does now. Griffin is an AHL wizard with the puck, a remarkable stickhandler at this level. But the final three words mean everything: at this level. Griffin has not been able to break through into the NHL. He’s played 79 NHL games over four seasons, but has just 19 points. He’s a killer in the AHL, and would likely be a star in Europe, but at age 28 I wonder if he’ll get another NHL shot. But at least he’s had a chance with a handful of teams to make a go of it in the NHL. Benson needs his shot in Edmonton, and the sooner, the better.