The Edmonton Oilers spent the better part of two decades trying to build a pipeline of young draft picks who could step in one day and help the big team.
Problem was, almost every time one of those prospects came up through the feeder system and got his shot in the NHL, he was in Edmonton just long enough to prove he wasn’t ready.
But there seems to be a significant change in wind direction lately, as player after player comes up from the Bakersfield Condors and not only sticks with the Oilers, but plays an important role.
Ethan Bear plays top-four minutes on defence. Kailer Yamamoto plays top-six minutes up front. Caleb Jones and Patrick Russell can step in at a moment’s notice and make solid NHL contributions.
And now Tyler Benson, who put up 104 points in 115 career American Hockey League games after being selected 32nd overall in 2016, is getting his chance to join the parade. The 21-year-old left winger, recalled this week, will draw in as early as Saturday night in Calgary.
“I’m anxious to see what Benson can do,” said head coach Dave Tippett. “He’s played just over 100 games in the American League 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.”
Being able to count on their development system to produce useful players is the result of many contributing factors, starting with the coaching staff in Bakersfield and ending with a new management philosophy in Edmonton that stresses patience.
“I give Jay Woodcroft a lot of credit down there, the guys who’ve come up have been ready to play,” Tippett said of the Condors head coach, who’s made a brilliant transition from Todd McLellan’s assistant to a head guy in the AHL.
“Jay and his staff down there have been doing a nice job. The players coming here are well schooled and they’re ready for the opportunity.
“Everybody is always anxious for young players to get here but that experience of playing in the American League is a valuable, valuable part of development.”
The young players are the first to admit it.
“I think the organization has been doing it the right way,” said Jones. “They’re letting guys stay down there and work on their games and not rush them up too quick and I think it’s paying off.
“(Yamamoto and Benson) both started the year there. I started the year down there. (William Lagesson) has been there for a bit. Ethan Bear played two full years. Russell has been there. It’s a process, but if you let players develop at their own pace, usually you get rewarded in the end.”
They can’t wait to see what Benson can do here. He was a can’t-miss kid growing up in Edmonton, until injuries pushed things off the tracks in junior, but he’s proven himself at the AHL level and now it’s time for the next step.
The call-up might have been bumped ahead a little after Joakim Nygard was lost to injury (the Oilers claim it’s a broken hand), but in reality Benson has been knocking on the door for weeks.
“He’s a really good offensive player, great vision,” said Jones. “He’s one of the better passers I’ve played with so far. Obviously some great ones here, but coming up, he’s one of the best passers I’ve seen.
“He’s really smart and he works hard. Last year, he lead 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.”
Edmonton’s Matt Benning, who just returned from a three-game conditioning stint in Bakersfield, had the most recent look at Benson and liked what he saw. He’s also trained with him in the summer for years and can attest to the work ethic.
“He’s a very smart player, crafty in tight areas,” Benning said. “He’s a guy that has good skill and a knack for scoring.
“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.”
Nobody is happier to see another one of their boys get a shot than the rest of the Bakersfield Six.
“Me, Bearsy, Russ, Yamo, Benny, Laggy, we were all playing in Bakersfield last year, so it’s exciting when you come with a group of three or four guys who’ve all been working hard and trying to get to the NHL,” said Jones. “When you see other guys rewarded, it’s definitely exciting to see.”