Tyler Benson will be given every opportunity to earn a spot on the Edmonton Oilers’ roster and had a strong first scrimmage of the season.
Benson had two assists playing on a line with Colby Cave and Patrick Russell, and is expected to see a lot of ice time during the pre-season starting Monday against the Winnipeg Jets.
“I’ve kind of been feeling better as it’s gone on,” Benson said. “I’m feeling more comfortable with the guys here, the practices have been pretty intense, and going into this game, it was an intense game and guys were battling hard.
“I’m putting pressure on myself to work hard every day and try to earn that spot. I’ve been working hard every day and been trying to get better every day to earn that.”
There is a spot to be won for Benson, who is coming off a strong season in the AHL with the Bakersfield Condors, leading the team in scoring with 15 goals and 66 points. The local product added a goal and six assists in 10 playoff games.
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“It was definitely a jump from junior, but I felt good out there last year,” Benson said. “It was a bit of an adjustment, but just as the year went on I gained confidence and I just tried to evolve my game and keep getting better.”
Benson is expected to be in the lineup when the Oilers host the Jets at Rogers Place (7 p.m.) on Monday. The Oilers have four pre-season games this upcoming week and another three the following week. They’ll open the regular season on Oct. 2 hosting the Vancouver Canucks.
“He’s one of those guys that is a bubble guy for me right now,” Oilers head coach Dave Tippett said. “We have a list of nine or 10 guys that, every day, we’re evaluating how they do. I thought his two rookie games were just alright, I thought the whole team was just alright, but that line was pretty good (Saturday) with Colby Cave and Russell. So we’ll see. I think he’s going to play (Monday) night and the next step for him is the exhibition games and we’ll see how it goes.”
So what do you get when you take a player who’s coming off a career high and pair him up with a player coming off a career low?
Dave Tippett is hoping it translates into a chemical reaction that lifts both players to new offensive heights and transforms the landscape of the Edmonton Oilers.
In teaming Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with James Neal, the Oilers believe (and so do the two players) that it’s a perfect solution to any number of troubling issues.
Neal’s ghastly slump of last season? Surely Nuge can help with that.
Lack of a regular, offensive gifted linemate for the longest serving Oiler? Neal can be that guy.
A more potent second line? That’s the plan.
“It’s nice to be able to play with a high end centre like that,” said Neal, who plans on having a major rebound from the seven-goal season that spelled the end of his time with the Calgary Flames.
“He had a great year last year, so he should be coming in with tons of confidence. He’s a guy who can put the puck in the net and he can pass it, so he’s dangerous. It’s really exciting for me.”
Nugent-Hopkins has made no secret of the fact he would like a chance to develop some continuity with someone.
“It makes things a lot easier when you have consistent linemates,” he said. “With the way the team went the past couple of years, that didn’t happen for me.
“It would be nice to get to a point where we play well every night and the coach has the confidence in us, whoever it is, to just stick us together and leave it like that for a little while.”
While Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl feed off each other at a frightening pace, Nugent-Hopkins has sometimes been the forgotten star in Edmonton. He started the year on McDavid’s line, putting up 18 points in 18 games, but the rest of the season was pretty much a revolving door of Milan Lucic, Jesse Puljujarvi, Tobias Rieder, Jujhar Khaira, and Alex Chiasson, who was the only real producer of the bunch.
Nugent-Hopkins wanted and deserved a better situation, but he took one for the team, played hard at both ends of the ice and finished with a career high 28 goals and 69 points.
You know he’s got more in him.
“I understand that coaches want to change things up,” he said. “I also see it from my point of view; I want consistency. But I went in every night with the attitude that I have to play my best. I’m going to score, I’m going to create, I’m going to get on the board or make an impact somehow no matter who I’m playing with.
“That’s the attitude I’ll have coming into this year. It helps when you have consistent line mates, but, whether it happens or not, I’ll have that same mentality every night.”
Nugent-Hopkins has always been a consistent two-way player. If they can get Neal to be what he’s always been — 10 straight seasons of 20 or more goals before the Calgary sag — the Oilers could be on to something big.
“He’s one of the most consistent goal scorers in the NHL and has been for years,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “Last year, you can call it a blip on the radar. He’s hungry for it. He wants to keep pushing. I can definitely see him getting back to his pace.”
Neal isn’t hoping or crossing his fingers that it will happen, he fully expects that he and Nugent-Hopkins will bring out the best in each other.
He’s made a career out of forging chemistry with elite linemates, like Mike Modano, Brad Richards and Evgeni Malkin, and sees enormous potential in this pairing.
They’ve already started on the process.
“As we get into some exhibition games we’ll have a better feel, but we’ve talked a lot, trying to get to know each other’s tendencies,” said Neal “And we’ll sit down and go over game tape. A lot goes into it.”
As a winger, Neal sees it as his responsibility to be the chameleon in this equation.
“You have to adapt to the centre. There are different ways that guys play and it’s my job to learn how Nuge plays, to see his tendencies and see what he likes to do and adapt to him.”
Tippett has a good feeling about this.
“(Neal) is a very motivated player,” said the coach. “The players see that in the dressing room. He’s got lots to prove, lots to give still and I think he’s going to be a very good player for us.”