As the highly touted No. 1 selection of the 2013 bantam draft, it’s not surprising to hear that Vancouver Giants winger Tyler Benson appears to be entering his sophomore season as the WHL’s top 2016 NHL draft prospect. The combination of his thick 6-foot, 196-pound build, elite skating ability, strong shot and physical edge gives him the right skill set to develop into a high-end power forward.
“Benson is the top draft prospect out of the WHL in my mind,” said an NHL scout. “He has tough competition, most notably Regina’s Sam Steel and Brandon’s Kale Clague, but I think it’s his spot to lose at this point. He does it all out there and has what it takes to develop into a first-line winger at the pro level. And with his attributes, he can work his way up a lineup in the NHL because of his physicality. It takes a bit of the risk away from drafting a player when you know he can play up and down a lineup.”
One of the biggest concerns surrounding Benson is his health. On Wednesday, Vancouver Province reporter Steve Ewen reported that Benson would undergo surgery for an undisclosed ailment and that his return to the Giants lineup was unclear. Last season he suffered a notable AC joint injury and was thought to be suffering from a lower-back injury that was keeping him out of Vancouver’s pre-season lineup.
“Last year at the U17 tournament I think my AC joint tore a bit and it kept me out of the lineup for five games,” said Benson in an earlier interview. “It wasn't fun to go through, but injuries happen. I feel good now and will be ready to go for the season.”
Benson is heading into the season similar to how Seattle Thunderbirds centre Matthew Barzal, who was chosen first overall in the 2012 WHL draft and 16th overall by the New York Islanders in the 2015 NHL draft, entered his draft year last season. He’s believed to have a good shot of donning an NHL sweater within the first 10 selections, but could fall into the 11-18 range if not everything goes to plan.
In an effort to help his draft status and team, Benson has his sights set on bettering his overall game this season. He wants to make a bigger impact in all three zones.
“I want to develop a better overall game,” said Benson, who scored 14 markers and 45 points in 62 games last year. “I’m a power forward and play hard at all ends of the rinks, but see room for improvement in all parts of my game. Whether it’s scoring goals, being more physical or playing in my own end, there’s always room for improvement.”
The attention that inevitably comes with being an NHL draft prospect shouldn’t catch Benson off guard. He’s been used to having microphones in his face dating back to his bantam days with Edmonton’s SSAC bantam AAA Lions. He had scouts and reporters drooling over his potential when he notched 57 goals and 146 points in 33 games in 2012-13.
“I did get a lot of media attention and continued to after the bantam draft,” he said. “I’ve gotten more comfortable with it over time and feel comfortable with it and I'm ready for it this year.”
Benson, 17, went through a bit of whirlwind as a rookie in Vancouver. On top of transitioning from midget hockey to the major junior level, he saw his first two head coaches get the boot. The Giants canned Troy Ward just 25 games into his first year behind the bench and let go his successor, Ex-NHL bench boss Claude Noel, at the end of the season. Former Saskatoon Blades GM-head coach Lorne Molleken was named Noel’s replacement.
“I personally feel the season was a good year for me and it helped me get comfortable with the league,” said the Edmonton, Alta., native. “It was different to go through the coaching changes, but I’m happy that Lorne is here now. He’s a good coach and this year should be a good year.”
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen