Time to Call Up Benson?

Kailer Yamamoto’s re-call to the Oilers is paying big dividends so far.

Yamamoto has 3 points in 4 games, a stretch in which the Oilers have gone 3-0-1. They’ve beaten both the Bruins and the Maple Leafs, two of the hottest teams in the NHL, in consecutive games in their buildings. Yamamoto’s strong play on a line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl has allowed coach Tippett to create two scoring lines without playing Draisaitl and Connor McDavid together.

Yamamoto’s success has Oilers fans wondering if another young forward should be getting a call up from Bakersfield in short order.

Tyler Benson is having another strong season in Bakersfield. He has 29 points in 33 games in the AHL so far this season after getting 66 points in 68 games last season. One could make a strong argument that the 2016 2nd round pick is ready.

The Oilers have been aching for scoring wingers for years, and Benson would add some skill to the current group of wingers. Given Yamamoto’s success in his first few games, it makes sense that people are eager to see if Benson could have similar success with the Oilers right now.

I can’t say that I’ve had many viewings of Benson, but here’s what I do know and what I have read about him. He’s a tremendous playmaker. He has great vision. His skating isn’t amazing, but he can get around the ice just fine. He does good work along the boards. He isn’t known for being an outstanding checker.

Players need to be put in positions where they can succeed if they are going to succeed. Benson seems like a player that needs to be on a scoring line if the Oilers are going to get the most out of him. I don’t see him grinding it out as a 4th liner. I also don’t see him excelling in a shut down role on a defensive line.

If the Oilers are going to call Benson up, they have to have a spot for him. I believe that spot needs to be in the top 6. The Oilers won’t see the best of Benson if he isn’t playing with skilled players that can finish off the plays that he makes with his vision.

Here are the current top two lines ever since Yamamoto’s call up:

Neal – McDavid – Kassian
Nuge – Draisaitl – Yamamoto

The Nuge – Draisaitl – Yamamoto line has been fantastic in the time that they have been together. I’ve been calling for Nuge and Draisaitl to play together for more than a period at a time for a while now. We saw it a couple of times earlier in the season, and it was unsuccessful. However, moving Nuge to left wing and adding Yamamoto on that line appears to be a great mix. That is something that I’d like to see continue!

Benson plays left wing. That leaves only one spot in the top 6 for him, and that’s on the left side of McDavid and Zack Kassian in place of James Neal.

McDavid and Benson could be magical together. Benson is a noted playmaker, but so was Draisaitl before he started playing with McDavid. Now Draisaitl is a 50 goal scorer. It’s not as if Benson can’t score. We know McDavid can do it all. Kassian has been a nice fit for McDavid because he protects pucks down low and he can finish close to the net. I wouldn’t mind seeing Benson – McDavid – Kassian for a little while.

Hypothetically, let’s say Benson does take the place of Neal on that top line. Here’s what the lines could look like:

Benson – McDavid – Kassian
Nuge – Draisaitl – Yamamoto
Neal – Haas – Chiasson
Khaira/Nygard – Sheahan – Archibald

On one side of the coin, adding Benson would add more skill to the team, which never hurts a team’s cause. On the other side of the coin, the bottom 6 would get significantly slower by adding Neal and removing one of Nygard or Khaira. The Oilers need every bit of speed that they can get… adding Benson and moving Neal down would decrease team speed.

It’s tough to say which factor would prove to be stronger. If Benson is ready to produce like it appears that Yamamoto is, then it seems like a good idea to call him up. If the Neal – Haas – Chiasson line gets caved in because they are too slow, then that’s not good for the team.

My problem with these combinations goes back to the idea that you need to put guys in positions to succeed if they are going to succeed. If Neal is bumped out of the top 6, then he would find himself on a checking line.

Neal is not a checker. He is a scorer.

His 5 on 5 numbers would suggest that he is a bottom 6 attacker, but the reality is that the Oilers are built a certain way this season. Holland set out to have two scoring lines, and two lines that could specialize in defending and penalty killing. Neal is not a strong defender. If Neal isn’t on a line that is more likely to spend most of it’s time in the offensive zone (a scoring line), then he disappears from games.

Neal is a sniper. He can settle into open ice and use his quick release to score goals. He can get to the dirty areas and he can finish from there.

He isn’t going to be in a position to be able to use those skills if he is playing with Gaetan Haas as his centre. I like Haas, but Neal won’t score goals with Haas as his centre. I certainly don’t see Neal on a shut down line with Sheahan and Archibald either.

If he is playing on McDavid’s wing, then he at least has the potential to be able to use those skills at 5 on 5.

You could also argue that Neal’s 5 on 5 performance this season suggests that he is a bottom 6 attacker at this point in his career, so he should be playing there. He will continue to do most of his damage on the powerplay no matter which line he plays on.

As far as the decision on who would come out of the line-up to make room for Benson goes, I personally like Nygard because of his speed and tenacity. He draws penalties and creates turnovers. He hasn’t shown the same kind of finish that he did in Sweden, but the NHL is a much tougher league and Nygard missed time at the start of the season. It’ll come for him.

Khaira is frustratingly inconsistent. He’s really effective when he uses his size and his speed to his advantage, but he has a way of disappearing for weeks at a time. He’s a solid penalty killer, and he does score goals at even strength though.

There are a lot of fans suggesting that Khaira should be traded or sent to Bakersfield. Honestly, I’d be willing to trade Khaira in a heartbeat. Doing so would open up $1.2 million in cap space for next season, and we do have Markus Granlund, who can do a lot of what Khaira can do.

My personal opinion is that having Benson continue to play in the AHL for the time being is not hurting him, and the team is doing well right now. I’m happy to see Benson continue to hone his craft in Bakersfield for the time being. I want to see Nygard continue to get better, and I want to see as much speed as we can keep in the bottom 6 right now.

If it becomes painfully obvious that Neal has no chemistry with McDavid and he has no business being in the top 6 anymore, then I’ll be happy to see Benson called up. I just don’t see the need to do it right this second.

Although if I’m being real with you, I wouldn’t be upset if Benson were to get called up either. I’m just as excited to see what we have in him as the rest of you are!

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