Western Hockey League scouts can’t see enough of Tyler Benson.
The Edmonton South Side superstar forward is the most hyped 1998-born player in Western Canada and is at or near the top of every WHL scout’s list for the 2013 bantam draft. Still, he’ll undoubtedly attract further attention during the Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League all-star game Saturday at the Red Deer Arena.
“There’s a handful of elite players in his age group and he’s definitely one of them,” said Red Deer Rebels senior scout Shaun Sutter.
With a mind-boggling 43 goals and 115 points in 24 games this season, Benson is on pace to shatter the AMBHL scoring record of 131 points set five years ago by Portland Winterhawks forward and St. Louis Blues prospect Ty Rattie.
Benson would have been an early pick if he was eligible for last year’s WHL bantam draft after finishing second to South Side linemate and Lethbridge Hurricanes first-round pick — fourth overall — Giorgio Estephan in league scoring with 84 points (34g,50a).
“He was actually a pretty dominant player last year,” said Sutter. “It’s not like this kid has come out of left field. You could argue that he was just as effective as Estephan last year.
“He’s a skilled player but also a guy who can make a difference in a game with a big hit. He’s a really well-rounded player.”
Benson carries 180 pounds on his five-foot-11 frame and there’s a far-ranging belief that not only should he be playing at the midget AAA level this winter, he has the size and overwhelming talent to warrant a roster position in the WHL next fall. The WHL does not have the ‘exceptional player rule’ that has been in place in the Ontario Hockey League for under-age players for several years, and there are WHL and pro scouts who feel Benson is worthy of that status.
“He’s a guy who’s hard to play against, he’s gritty and physical,” said Sutter. “For being a skill guy, he’s unique in that way.”
Sutter, however, isn’t giving Benson the absolute No. 1 ranking for the 2013 bantam draft.
“It’s tough to say that. It will depend on what teams are looking for,” said Sutter. “There are some unique players available for the draft, but if you polled the scouts his (Benson’s) name would always come up.”
Another top prospect for the draft is Lloydminster Heat defenceman Kale Clague, who along with Benson will suit up with the North team in the all-star contest. The son of former Red Deer Rebels goaltender Jason Clague is a two-way force who suited up with the Lloydminster midget AAA squad in the recent Calgary Mac’s tournament.
“He’s just an awesome skater and he’s a guy who continues to get better,” said Sutter. “He’s another kid, one of a handful of these ‘98 kids who are probably good enough to play midget AAA this season and basically do the same things they’re doing in bantam.”
Clague, five-foot-11 and 170 pounds, has notched 25 goals and collected 59 points in 25 games this season. He’s the top-scoring defenceman in the AMBHL, ninth overall.
The Red Deer Rebels Black and White teams will be represented by a total of three players, all of whom are prospective WHL bantam draft picks.
Representing the Rebels Black are defenceman TJ Brown and towering forward Jeffrey de Wit, while Rebels White forward Tyler Steenbergen will also suit up with the South team.
“De Witt is a big body who has some good skills and skates well for his size (six-two, 170 pounds) and Steenbergen is a smaller (five-nine, 157 pounds), dynamic offensive player who also plays and competes pretty hard,” said Sutter.
As for the five-11, 160-pound Brown . . .
“He’s a real good skater who shoots the puck well,” said Sutter. “He’s a guy who plays hard. He’s the type of player coaches always love because he plays with so much determination.”
Steenbergen leads all Rebels White scorers and sits 17th in the league with 50 points (30-20) in 24 games, while de Witt has 42 points (18-24) in 25 outings and Brown has 29 points (14-15) in 26 contests.
Also competing in the all-star game will be the likes of top scorers Sam Steel of Sherwood Park, Ryan Jevne of the Edmonton Maple Leafs, Mason Shaw of Lloydminster and Parker Aucoin and Matthew Phillips of the Calgary Bisons and Northstar Sabres.
“This a really strong year for Alberta,” said Sutter. “There’s a lot of quality players. You could pick a guy at the end of the first round and he could be as good as a player picked in the top 10. There’s just that many elite players.”
Still, the big spotlight is on Benson and his ability to play in the WHL next season if he was granted ‘exceptional player’ status.
“Come this time next year he could be an inch taller and 10 to 15 pounds heavier. He could survive in the WHL, no question,” Benson’s South Side coach Taylor Harnett told Marc Spector of sportsnet.ca. “I’ve been with the South Side Athletic Association since 1999 and I’ve seen a lot of good players come and go. I remember Jordan Eberle, how good he was when he played with the Notre Dame Hounds. He stood out, but it was nothing like what Tyler’s doing.
“He’s the full package.”
Tri-City Americans general manager Bob Tory is in full agreement with Harnett and clearly sees Benson as the top prospect for the bantam draft.
“In my mind, no question he goes No. 1,” Tory told Spector. “The numbers he’s putting up and the consistency he’s doing it with is amazing. It’s special, really special — as good as I’ve seen, probably, in the last 10 years.
“He’s ahead of a guy like Gilbert Brule, who was a great junior. He could be a Jonathan Toews type of player. He’s big, he’s strong, he skates well, skill level is real good. They come around once every 10 years or so.”