|Benson set to make his Giants debut tonight after a|
gold medal win with Alberta in the WHL's U16 Cup.
The last time that a Giants player was even selected first overall in the WHL Draft -- let alone a year early -- it was Gilbert Brule. Say what you will about the Brule's NHL career -- he came exactly as advertised in the 'Dub, single-handedly leading the Giants to a WHL championship and Memorial Cup appearance in his third junior season. As the hype would seemingly dictate then, the road back to legitimacy for the Giants starts tonight.
Nationwide, the precedence for being drafted into the major juniors a year early begins with John Tavares, which should give you some indication that Vancouver isn't the only city closely watching tonight's game.
Just earlier this month, however, Benson had an opportunity to prelude his WHL debut with a strong performance on what was -- until now -- the biggest stage he's been showcased on. Every two-ish years, the WHL and the four provincial minor hockey associations in the West organize the Western Canada U16 Challenge Cup.
Playing for tournament host Team Alberta, Benson was named an alternate captain and, by all accounts, should have dominated the four-team competition ahead of his Giants debut. (Think Connor McDavid at the World U18's, but against weaker competition.) Two games into the tournament, however, he was held pointless in contests against Team Manitoba and Team Saskatchewan.
In the last game of the round-robin, the 15-year-old finally cracked the scoresheet, scoring the game-tying goal in the third before assisting on the overtime-winner. Meeting Team BC once again in the Final, he scored Alberta's go-ahead goal, helping lead his home province to a 4-2 championship win and their third .
While Benson seemed to finish the tournament strong, his 3 points in 4 games was a far cry from what was expected from the latest of the proverbial "Next Ones". At 2 goals and 1 assist, he ranked fifth in team scoring (13th overall) and was left off the tournament all-star team in favour of teammates Kale Clague (Brandon Wheat Kings) and Sam Steel (Regina Pats).
As the highest-profile player at the tournament, Benson was undoubtedly very closely checked by his opponents. Loaned over from Kelowna's Pursuit of Excellence team, he was also one of only three players not from the province's major midget league, so perhaps familiarity with his teammates was an issue.
Nonetheless, playing against fellow 15-year-olds, it's hard to identify either of these as a legitimate explanation for his performance -- especially when the anticipation is for him to dominate at the junior level with under-20's.
All things told, the WHL's U16 Cup is nowhere near the sort of stage that Benson will inevitably be expected to prove himself. And with 34 points (15 goals and 19 assists) in 16 games for Kelowna's U18 Pursuit of Excellence Program, it is not as if Benson hasn't proven himself at the midget level. His real test starts tonight as the stage and the spotlight will only get bigger from here on out.
As previously mentioned, Brule succeeded in leading the Giants to a Memorial Cup appearance in 2006. That was quickly followed by a national championship at the next year's tournament with current NHL stars Milan Lucic and Evander Kane both in the Giants lineup. With Ron Toigo and the Giants looking to host the 2016 Memorial Cup, it's clear who the team would like carrying the torch in three years' time. By then, Benson will be in his second full junior year and, ideally, putting up the same kind of numbers that his midget team in Kelowna is currently enjoying.
First things first, however, he has to rebound from his Team Alberta performance earlier this month. Luckily for him, he'll get his first crack tonight.