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. However, 2021-22 was all about Benson’s reinvention 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, 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 had one assist, one block and one hit for the night, which was a plus-1 rating. It ended 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 Benson is likely not the version that the Oilers had in mind when they draft him 32ndOverall, 2016 was a great year. He was returning from a Giants injury-shortened season in which he managed to post 28 points in just 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.
Related: Oilers need to find silver lining in Losing Larsson
Many people believed the Kraken would choose Benson. However, Seattle pulled a great deal and signed Oilers Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) defenseman Adam Larsson. Benson was then signed by the Oilers to a one-year, two-way contract extensionThis effectively marked his last chance at Edmonton.
Benson Offers 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. As he gets more experience and can build on other aspects of his game, the young forward is getting greater opportunities.
Brian is a Edmonton-based broadcaster and sports writer. His previous experience includes his work as a sports reporter at the Edmonton Sun where he covered 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season for the Edmonton Oil Kings.