Oilers starting to reap benefits of being patient with prospects

Photo Credit: Mark Nessia/Bakersfield Condors

EDMONTON — We’ve always heard a lot of talk about how the Edmonton Oilers are going to start “doing things right” as an organization. Like any team in any league, they’re in the good news business.

Those who prefer the real, concrete evidence however, have continually watched Edmonton fast-tracking its prospects. Not enough first-round picks have been sent to the American League affiliate to percolate, and if they go they tend to be called up after 25 games.

Well, that time has finally arrived when deeds meet words.

As Tyler Benson, the 32nd pick in the 2016 draft, arrives in Edmonton after 115 American Hockey League games, he joins an Oilers team that will dress five players tonight who have recently spent at least two seasons plying their trade in the minors.

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Benson was to arrive later Friday afternoon, so unless someone falls ill this afternoon he was not expected to play Friday night against the St. Louis Blues. But Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones, Kailer Yamamoto and Patrick Russell were all slated to play, with defenceman William Lagesson providing depth in the press box.

They’re not all superstars, but that’s not the point. Edmonton is battling atop the Pacific Division this season in part because of their increased depth. Because a kid like Bear emerged to become a top-four defenceman, while Yamamoto’s ability to play in the top-six has for the first time made a success out of separating Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on to their own lines.

It’s an actual farm system. Like the good teams have.

“I think the organization has been doing it the right way,” said Jones, “letting guys stay down there and work on their games and not rush them up too quick. It’s paying off.

“You can see Yamo and Benny both started the year there. I started the year down there. Laggy’s been there for a bit. Bearsy played two full years. Russ has been there. It’s a process, but if you let players develop at their own pace, usually you get rewarded in the end.”

Jay Woodcroft, formerly an assistant on Todd McLellan’s staff in Edmonton, is gaining traction as an excellent, up and coming coach in Bakersfield. He’s a teacher, and the proof is in his pupils.

“Having Woody down there,” Yamamoto said, “he’s teaching some really good hockey, showing the process and what it takes. You can see how good everyone is getting down there.”

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The latest call-up is Benson, who has simmered in the American League since leaving the Western Hockey League at the end of the 2017-18 season. An organization with a penchant for rushing high-end draft picks like Jesse Puljujarvi has resisted with Benson, the second player chosen in the second round of his draft.

The result is a player who is likely ready for his chance, one he may get on Saturday in Calgary with Joakim Nygard being placed on injured reserve with a broken hand.

“Really good offensive player, great vision,” Jones said of Benson. “Coming up through (the AHL) he’s one of the best passers I’ve seen. Really smart and he works hard. Last year he led our team in points, was a point per game, and this year it’s the same thing. He’s earned it. I expect him to come up and hopefully make an impact right away. He’s a really talented player.”

Oilers defenceman Matt Benning, like Benson an Edmonton native who grew up cheering for the Oilers, has skated with Benson for many summers. “Benny’s a great guy, and it will be good to have another Benny in the dressing room,” he laughed.

Benning’s grandfather, Elmer, was one of Western Canada’s great hockey scouts, traversing the Prairies for 45 years for the Montreal Canadiens. The grandson sounds a bit like his grandpa when he assesses Benson, a player he recently played with during a conditioning stint in Bakersfield.

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“He’s a very smart player,” begins Benning. “Crafty in tight areas. Good skill. He’s a guy that has the knack for scoring. Makes really good passes. He’s a smart, smart player.

“He’s an AHL All-Star, and he’s leading the team in points for a reason. He’s battled through injuries for most of his career. I’m happy for him.”

Clearly, it’s not just talk anymore here in Edmonton. The players coming up, almost to the man, have helped the big team win. And with draft picks like Evan Bouchard and Ryan McLeod all playing their first pro seasons there — perhaps to be joined next season by 2019 first-rounder Filip Broberg — it seems like the words and the evidence are finally beginning to match up.

“I’m anxious to see what Benson can do,” said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett. “He’s played just over 100 games in the American League now and has been a good point producer down there. He’s earned the opportunity to come up. It’s an exciting time for him and I can say we’ve had some pretty good luck with some of our depth.

“It would be nice to see more guys jump up in that role.”

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