Friday, 13 September 2013

The Tyler Benson Post

Giants #1 pick and top WHL prospect Tyler Benson. Image via Vancouver Giants.
The Vancouver Giants' preseason is winding down with only two more games left between now and the start of the regular season: a weekend home-and-home against the Victoria Royals this Saturday and Sunday. So far the Giants have had a fairly decent preseason, going 2-1-1 with wins over Kelowna and Kamloops. They've been led in scoring by 19-year old ex-Red Deer Rebel Joel Hamilton and rookies Ty Ronning and Alec Baer. All three have three points in three games. But to the dismay of some fans, the Giants will start the season without their most intriguing player: the highly-touted Tyler Benson.

Benson chose not to apply for exceptional player status this year, which, if accepted, would have allowed him to play his 15-year old season in the WHL. Instead, he and his family chose to attend the Pursuit Of Excellence hockey academy in Kelowna, where he left Giants camp to join this past weekend. From closely watching him through camp and his first preseason games, Benson left me with the impression that not applying for exceptional player status was absolutely the correct choice. He still needs time to grow and develop before he can run roughshod over one of the best junior leagues on the planet. I'll outline the reasons why below.

Benson at Training Camp:
Like most of the Giants' top rookies, Benson was dominant at rookie camp, but kind of went quiet as he moved to the main camp alongside guys that were bigger, stronger, faster and more skilled than anyone he's ever played with or against before. Although he showcased some dynamic skill, he looked tentative and not used to the speed of the older players, especially after getting crunched by Blake Orban in his first game with the main camp. He finished his first WHL preseason with a goal and an assist in three games, both of which came in his first game against the Kelowna Rockets.

Although he has "WHL size" already at 5'11, 180 lbs, he looked much smaller and more slight than many of the returning players. He was also pushed off the puck when battling down low, and didn't have that extra gear in his skating that Giants veterans like Dalton Sward demonstrated. In fact, size is probably one of the few concerns with Benson. As the previous link also revealed, he is already the tallest person in his family. Since his Dad is 5'10 and his mother is 5'3, he may be finished growing already. That being said, it's not as if he's 5'4. There are plenty of players in the NHL who are 5'11 and below, including the reigning Conn Smythe trophy winner and Art Ross trophy winner and probably the best hockey player in the world. Whether Benson grows or not isn't going to hold him back at this point.

The one skill that Benson demonstrated more so than any other was his sublime passing ability. His playmaking should have been obvious after he posted 89 assists in only 33 games last season in the AMBHL, but he consistently impressed with smart passes in all three zones, threading perfect breakout passes through the neutral zone and using his quick hands to set up scoring chances down low and off the rush.

All in all, Benson just looked like a player that isn't quite ready for full-time WHL duty. He's supremely talented, but really wasn't much of an impact player when he was on the ice with the main camp or seeing preseason action. This is no fault of his, since it appeared to come mainly from the physical shortcomings that go along with being just 15 years old. This is still the same kid who set the AMBHL scoring record last season, with a massive 146 points in 33 games so he's going to be a good hockey player. But what does his bantam scoring rate really tell us about his future, and does it mean he's going to dominate the WHL in the years to come? John Tavares and Connor McDavid stepped seamlessly into the OHL as underage players after standout performances in minor midget, but as you'll see, the AMBHL is a very, very different league.

Context for the AMBHL Scoring Record:
The comparisons between Benson and Erie Otters centre Connor McDavid are already out there. In a sense, it was inevitable that it would happen. It's rare that two very talented forwards come along so close to one another, but these comparisons are also vastly unfair to Benson. Even though he scored at a higher rate in his 14-year old season than both McDavid and Sidney Crosby, Benson played in bantam while both Crosby and McDavid played with players one and two years older in midget. Comparing their scoring rates is comparing apples to oranges.

There's also the matter of just how good the AMBHL was when Benson lit it up last year. Historically, it's produced a handful of NHLers including Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Jay Boumeester, Andrew Ference, Clarke MacArthur, Kyle Calder, Jordin Tootoo, Mason Raymond, Mark Fistric and Johnny Boychuk. Overall, that's not a bad track record and a very solid list of names, but I don't know how this compares to any other major bantam programs in Canada as far as "producing NHL talent" goes.

But here's the interesting thing: the scoring record that Tyler Benson broke wasn't some long standing record that finally fell after years and years of talented players passing through. It was held by now 20-year old Ty Rattie, who, while a very good prospect, isn't expected to light the world on fire at the NHL level. The record holder before Rattie had his big season in 2007-2008 was a guy by the name of Josh Lazowski, who scored a then league-high 118 points in 2005-2006. Previous to Lazowski, the record had belonged to Colton Sceviour (108 points in 2003-04), Ian MacDonald (107 points in 2000-01), Jared Aulin (103 points in 1997-98) and Tim Smith (90 points in 1996-97).

You'll notice two things here. One, that you've probably never heard of any of these guys except for Rattie, and two, that the AMBHL scoring record hasn't really stood for very long at any one time. The first observation is more of a confirmation in the uncertainty of projecting the hockey playing future of kids that are 14 freaking years old, but the second observation is curious. Why is this scoring record being broken so often? I could think of three possible explanations:

1) This is a reflection of the decline in Canadian goaltending. Our best athletes are no longer playing goal because it's too expensive, so scorers will have an easier time scoring.
2) The quality of top-level players is increasing relative to that of the bottom level of players. This could be caused by either Rattie, Benson and company being the best hockey players to ever come through the AMBHL, or the rest of the league simply getting worse.
3) The quality of stat tracking has simply improved over time. Secondary assists may be awarded with more frequency and stats may be safely archived online, leading to more accurate, and relatively inflated, point totals.

Just looking at the save percentage numbers from 1993-94 to present, the first option doesn't seem to be true. If anything, save percentage for AMBHL goalies looks to be increasing as more and more kids eclipse the 0.900 mark. In fact, more goalies posted save percentages of 0.910 or better in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 than there ever had been in any single year before, so a decline in quality of goaltending isn't a viable explanation.

There may, however, be something to the second option as the AMBHL has more than doubled in size since 1991 from just nine teams to 22 today. The theory of a diluted talent pool would seem to be supported by the stats too, as the number of players who average two or more points per game in a single season has tended to increase along with expansion. This is illustrated by the below graph:

There's one big problem here though. If you remove Benson's most recent season where an astounding 19 players averaged more than two points per game, there really doesn't appear to be a pattern as to if expansion is leading to more productive seasons from the AMBHL's top players.

So what about the third and final theory, that assists are being counted with a greater frequency, leading to higher point totals. If this hypothesis is true, we should expect to see the leading scorers for the AMBHL to post fairly constant goals per game numbers on a yearly basis, an increase in assists per game among points leaders on a yearly basis, and a declining ratio of goals to assists among leading scorers, indicating that a greater proportion of their point totals are from assists. Long in short, we want the dark grey lies in this next graph to all be about the same height, the light grey ones to be getting taller as you go right, and the red line to get smaller as you go right. Unfortunately, it's not all that clear as to what's going on:

If assists are being counted with greater frequency, it's not being reflected in the AMBHL leading scorer's point totals. From this, it cannot be concluded that Benson's massive season is a result of more accurate tracking of scoring stats.

What cannot be ignored is that Benson set his record in a freaky weird outlier of a season in terms of the number of players who scored at a clip of two points per game or better. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason why. It just kinda happened like that. 146 points in a 33 game season is still a massive total, and the fact of the matter is that Tyler Benson was by far and away the best player in the AMBHL last year, but we should still be cautioned when we look at this record. The list of previous record holders isn't exactly prestigious, and we know that weird things were happening in last year's outlier of an AMBHL season.

What All of This Says About Benson:
First and foremost, it says that he's a very, very good player with enormous upside. Let's not lose focus of that. He scored a ton of points; more than everyone else playing at that level. He is fully deserving of being drafted 1st overall out of bantam and he should become a star player in the WHL. He is not Connor McDavid though. Nor is he Sidney Crosby. From the evidence I've been able to gather, between looking at his AMBHL stats and watching him closely all through training camp, I don't think it's fair to say that Tyler Benson is a generational talent that projects to be a sure-fire can't-miss NHL superstar. He may very well turn into that, but he needs time to develop as a hockey player and get stronger before he can run roughshod over the WHL, and spending the year in Kelowna's Program of Excellence Academy will help him do just that.

For now, he is the future of the Vancouver Giants. If GM Scott Bonner can continue to surround him with quality talent like Ty Ronning and Alec Baer, the future of the Giants is very bright. Still, it's best to temper our expectations a little. It will be a year or two before we really see the best of Tyler Benson in the WHL.