The goals remain few and far between, but rookie winger Tyler Benson is starting to hit his stride for the Bakersfield Condors.
Benson has points in five of his last six games and his team-leading 18th assist on Wednesday propelled him to the top of the points leaderboard with 22.
Those numbers certainly are not a surprise as Benson, an Edmonton native, had a knack for putting up big numbers as a youngster and was selected in the second round (34th overall) by his hometown Oilers in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
“It was exciting to be drafted by Edmonton," Benson, 20, said. “I grew up cheering for the team and wearing their jersey whenever they were playing on game day. One of my favorite experiences was being able to watch the 2006 Stanley Cup run (Edmonton lost in seven games to Carolina), that was really exciting. I was even able to go to one of the games against San Jose (in the conference semifinals). That was a lot of fun for me. I’ve always enjoyed being a fan.”
Now he’s working toward being an Oiler.
His development in junior was thwarted by injuries in back-to-back seasons which drastically limited his playing — and development — time.
He was healthy last season and led the Vancouver Giants in assists (42) and was second on the team in points with 69 in 58 games. He got his first taste of pro hockey late last season, playing five games for the Condors and registering three assists.
“It was a couple of frustrating years for me, my draft year and the year after that with injuries but ever since then it’s gone well,” Benson said. “Having my first summer of training last summer in a couple of years was good for me. I just feel stronger and more confident on the ice.”
Oilers Assistant General Manager Keith Gretzky, who took in Wednesday night’s game and will be on hand for Friday’s game against Colorado, said the organization is high on Benson and willing to let him develop at the AHL level due to so much missed time as a junior.
Benson started the season with a goal and an assist in his first game. He had goals in back-to-back games on Nov. 8 and Nov. 10 before going 17 games without one, breaking that drought on Monday in Ontario.
“I’ve always been more of an assist guy over goals and it’s just the way it’s happening right now,” Benson said. “I think I’ve had chances to score. I just think if I can bear down a little more those will come.”
Condors coach Jay Woodcroft said Benson has been a solid player all season.
“We don’t just measure his game in production, we measure it all over the rink,” Woodcroft said. “I think he’s taken a step with his skating this year. His 200-foot game has really come along, he’s one of our best backchecking forwards on our team, he strips pucks and creates turnovers. He’s been all over the chance sheet so we knew it was just a matter of time of him converting.”
And besides, his assists are leading to goals.
“At the same time he’s gone a few games without a goal, he set numerous goals up,” Woodcroft said. "He’s finding ways and that’s what good players do.”
Benson’s passing ability was on display last Saturday when, while in the right circle, he threaded a cross-ice pass to Jake Kulevich who fired his first goal into a wide-open net.
“My vision’s great and I think that’s probably one of my biggest assets and it’s showing right now,” Benson said. “I just try to make the decision (shoot or pass) that gives us the best chance to score.”
Four Condors — Joe Gambardella is the latest — have made their NHL debut with the Oilers this season and Benson is certainly making a case to get a look-see sometime this year.
“I’m definitely happy for those guys, they’ve earned it,” Benson said. “I can just focus on my game right now. I want to get better and better every day and hopefully one day I get the chance.”