Tyler Benson getting exceptional status to enter WHL carries ‘inherent risk,’ league says

Neate Sager

With its practice of drafting players a year earlier than the other two major junior circuits and allowing them to get a brief taste of the league at age 15, the Western Hockey League hasn't had the nearly annual speculation about a player coming into the league a year early.

However, as the Connor McDavid story showed last season, there is no pumping the brakes once a prodigy is established as a certifiable Next One. The OHL could make it three in as many seasons if Detroit Compuware defenceman Sean Day's forthcoming application for exceptional status is granted by Hockey Canada. The suggestion of Benson doing the same has been out there for a while. The Edmonton native has 144 points in 32 bantam AAA games for the Southgate Lions, is also the consensus top prospect in Western Canada's crop of bantam players and physically, he's the biggest skater on his team. One key difference, though, between Benson and the recent early arrivals in the OHL — Day should he succeed, McDavid last season and Barrie Colts defenceman Aaron Ekblad in 2011 — is that he would be trying to go directly from bantam to major junior. The other three 'played up' as 14-year-olds, so they were essentially just staying with their peer group.

But when someone has 50 more points than any other player in his league, there's going to be a debate.

From Kristen Odland (@kristenodlandCH):

In Benson’s case, however, it’s worth asking the question — should he be the first? Or should everyone just take a deep breath and let his career progress naturally?

“There’s an inherent risk to bring a player up to a dramatically higher level,” pointed out Tyler Boldt, the WHL’s director of player development. “We’ve seen that in the past at the NHL level. You never hear about a player who was held back for too long and it stunted his development.”

... Having been playing against Grade 8 and Grade 9 players — and a significantly lighter schedule than major junior — the physical aspect cannot be underestimated.

“Now he’ll be jumping into a league where players are 20- and 21-years-old,” Boldt said. “That’s a big difference. Especially with the growth of these boys at that age, that’s a lot of inches and a lot of pounds between a 14-year-old and a 20-year-old. When you’re 14 years old, your body is still developing at an accelerated pace. And then when you make that jump to junior, all those kids have already been through it.

“It’s exciting, but you do have to keep it into perspective.” (Calgary Herald)

Not to be down on whether Benson could make the leap, but the fact it would require skipping an age group entirely might be a potential argument. What else is there?

At least in midget (which encompasses ages 15-17 in Alberta), Benson would get to assert himself against players up to two years older, instead of just dominating players the same age who are not as physically advanced. That said, the brief glimpses of him furnished through YouTube suggest he has the goods. Tough call to make.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.