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THE ROOKIES

BY CAIT MACPHAIL

"I was 5-foot-6 and about 150 pounds when I got drafted into the OHL."

Oilers rookie forward Drake Caggiula was well aware that his smaller stature wasn't necessarily turning any heads when he was selected in the third round of the 2010 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Priority Draft at the age of 16.

There was work to be done.

After two seasons in the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL), Caggiula was eligible to be drafted in the 2012 NHL Draft but was not selected.

For many budding hockey players in Caggiula's position that time is a crucial juncture in their young careers and one that brings with it some tough decisions.

College or Major Junior hockey?

Through an arduous process of self-evaluation, combined with reasonable expectations, Caggiula plotted out his next move.

Undersized, undrafted, and overlooked.

What were deemed detractions from his potential, Caggiula used as kindle for his own personal fire - one that he got to stoke further after committing to the University of North Dakota to play NCAA hockey for the Fighting Hawks in the fall of 2012.

"I just didn't think I was mature enough to be playing in the OHL at that time," said Caggiula. "I wanted to give myself a little bit of extra time to develop."

He saw the merits that taking the College route could have, not only for his hockey development but personal development as well. That critical self-awareness factored into his decision.

"I wanted to get my education and have that in my back pocket."

The decision proved fruitful. Caggiula put a big bow on his college career in April of 2016 when he led UND to the NCAA Division I Men's Hockey championship and was named Most Outstanding Player at the Frozen Four tournament in Tampa, Florida. Caggiula also walked away with a bachelor's degree in kinesiology in that back pocket. 

Caggiula put up an impressive 51 points (25 goals, 26 assists) in 39 games with UND in his last NCAA campaign. A stubborn bullishness and bulldog tenacity in his game elevated his play to a compete-level that superseded any lack of physical size - combine that with skilled hands and a penchant for offence, and you're going to stand out.

Any labels placed on the small forward from Pickering, Ontario were eroded over time as he worked his way through the college ranks.

The heads that weren't turned leading up to Caggiula's draft-eligible year were now craned in his direction. The Oilers took notice as well.

 A handful of NHL teams were suddenly in pursuit of the college free agent out of North Dakota. And once again, Caggiula was at a crossroads, this time with potentially even more at stake and a wider array of options in front of him.

"I was very fortunate that I was able to tell teams I wanted to wait until the end of my college season until I had any conversations. It allowed me to just play hockey and do my thing," said Caggiula of the initial stages of being courted by pro scouts.

"Once the season was over and I started going on my visits and talking to teams, it became pretty hectic. It's tough to decide where your future is going to be and what the best fit is."

This past May, the list of potential landing spots for the coveted free agent dwindled down from four to three to two.

On May 7, 2016, it was announced that the Edmonton Oilers had signed Caggiula to a two-year entry-level contract.

Each party found a fit in the other.

"Once I finally picked Edmonton, it was a huge sigh of relief. I was able to relax, settle down and go back to normal a bit. I was most comfortable with Edmonton and what they had to offer. The fit seemed right."

While the Oilers were agreeing to terms with the prospect out of North Dakota, they also had their sights set on another college free agent a few states to the east. Like how Caggiula added depth to the organization's forward pool, the Oilers felt Northeastern University defenceman and local product Matt Benning could do the same for the back end.

The Oilers were again well-aware that they weren't the only club in hot pursuit of another college free agent, but were confident the fit was right.

Once again, the interest between club and player proved mutual. Benning signed a two-year entry-level deal with the Oilers on August 27.

Unlike Caggiula, Benning had been selected in the 2012 NHL draft in the sixth round and 175th overall by then general manager of the Boston Bruins, and current Oilers GM, Peter Chiarelli. The potential Chiarelli saw in Benning in his draft year carried over to his management role in Edmonton as he kept tabs on Benning's development along the way.

"My history with him and knowledge about Matt definitely helped," said Chiarelli.

Adding defensive depth was something high on the organization's priority list since Chiarelli's arrival in the summer of 2015, and management felt they were adding another key supportive piece in Benning. With other clubs in hot pursuit, finalizing the deal with the d-man was another off-season box ticked off for the Oilers.

"Our scarcity down the lineup with right-shot defenceman was a big factor. He fits right in there with his age and he can think the game so well… I've seen a lot of him over the years and our (scouts) really liked him as well," said Chiarelli.

Caggiula was attending the Oilers Rookie Development Camp in Jasper when he first caught wind that the Oilers were interested in another college free agent from the East.

"They told me during development camp that Benning might possibly sign here in Edmonton," said Caggiula.

The Oilers prospect recalled a brief history between himself and Benning from their college days.

"I knew who he was, we actually played each other one time during the previous season."

Different positions, different colleges and different paths, but it seemed the two rookies were primed to have a connection when they both converged on Edmonton this past summer in preparation for main training camp.

"Drake came into Edmonton a couple weeks early for training camp in the summer so I texted him," said Benning

Benning reached out to Caggiula to invite him along to an on-ice goalie shooting session.

It was the start of a fast friendship.

"Ever since the very beginning of training camp, it was the two of us coming from college. When you have that background, it's pretty common for guys if they cross paths, no matter where they played, to be good about it. There's a familiarity there," said Caggiula. 

NEW ADDITIONS

With the landscape of the Oilers roster shifting significantly over the off-season, two new additions in Benning and Caggiula were thrown into a very competitive training camp pool. Caggiula was in the mix with a combination of other budding forward prospects and some older, more experienced players, all vying for a full-time gig with the big club.

Shifting to the depth chart on the Oilers back end, and Benning found himself in a similar position.

Embarking on the Oilers main training camp, it seemed plausible that both rookies out of college might end up on the Oilers American Hockey League affiliate down in Bakersfield, California - at least to start the season - to help further ingratiate them into the professional hockey setting and develop their game.

While neither rookie suited up for the Oilers on opening night, and both for different reasons, their arrival and impact with the big club was soon to be had.

Caggiula turned heads with an impressive training camp and pre-season performance. As he bullied his way through camp, it seemed likely that the tenacious forward would make the Oilers opening night roster. But his progress was derailed when he sustained a lower-body injury in a pre-season matchup.

Fast forward to November 19. Caggiula sat in his stall in the visitor's locker room at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. He got centered and reassured himself that he was right where he belonged. With the nagging injury behind him, he was about to lace up his skates in his first-ever NHL game.

It's often a turbulent ride in any NHL player's journey leading to that specific moment. And while Caggiula had hoped his might have come earlier, he credits a veteran presence in the locker room with helping him over that last hurdle.

"Hendo really helped me keep a positive head on my shoulders throughout it all," said Caggiula.

Oilers forward Matt Hendricks was sidelined with an injury to start the season as well, and it gave him a chance to get to know the rookie out of UND. Having taken the path less travelled through college hockey as well, the two could relate on a unique level.

"Having an older vet who also went to college and had a long road to get here helped a lot. He's been really good about it all," Caggiula said of Hendricks

"He's been a good mentor."

Knowing Hendricks' impact in any locker room he's a part of, it might come as no surprise that he takes it upon himself to be somewhat of a concierge for the young guys coming in.

"Coming from college, and with the NHL's more intense schedule, the first one or two pro years can kind of wear you down," said Hendricks.

"Drake was a good college kid coming in, so I just wanted to help him out along the way and help him and Benning learn how to get through these long seasons."

Also out of the lineup with injury to start the season, Hendricks made sure Caggiula still felt part of the team despite having to watch from the press box for the first month.

"I had him over for dinner and we would go to lunch. We also went Halloween shopping together with my kids and got our costumes," said Hendricks

"Drake is an easygoing kid. He doesn't need much. I gave him a little support here and there to help him be confident in his game."

Caggiula notched his first NHL point in his first-ever game on a beautiful feed to Tyler Pitlick who buried it past Dallas goaltender Kari Lehtonen.

"The Drake" had arrived. 

"Drake gave us exactly what we needed from him," said Oilers coach Todd McLellan following Caggiula's NHL debut.

"There's a lot of reasons why we're excited about him… I do believe we have a great asset in him and going forward, he can be a big part of our team."

The Oilers were witnessing the emergence of the potential they had seen in Caggiula when he was tearing up the college ranks and even earlier than they might have hoped.

As far as pleasant surprises go, the two college rookies weren't done there.

"You can't really control management's decision, but you've just got to make it hard on them to decide."

Matt Benning had tempered expectations as he worked his way through his first training camp with the Oilers. He knew there was a good chance he'd be assigned to the AHL, but was determined to prove he could hold water at the NHL level.

When discussing Oilers training camp with his dad Brian, former NHLer and one-time Edmonton Oiler, his father had some sure-fire advice for his son Matt when the young defenceman mentioned he expected to spend some time in the minors.

"He said, 'well, just make the team out of training camp,'" Benning smiled as he recalled his dad's fail-proof advice. 

While Benning couldn't heed his dad's advice exactly, his own personal determination helped move the needle in the right direction.

"I think I did a good job making it hard on management," said Benning.

After an impressive training camp, Matt Benning was assigned to the Bakersfield Condors of the AHL in October, though his tenure there would be short-lived.

After only two games in the AHL, where he tallied a goal and an assist, Benning was recalled by the big club.

That dogged will to prove himself culminated in his NHL debut on November 1, when the Oilers took on the Maple Leafs.

"I'm just going to try and go out there, play my game and take it as another game, not as my first NHL game," said Benning, ahead of his first NHL appearance.

In true pro hockey fashion, Benning hit the ice for warmup first and did a solo lap before his teammates joined him.

Benning's goal of making it tough on management to send him down was seen through. The 22-year-old from St. Albert, with an air of quiet confidence, has remained with the Oilers ever since his recall from the AHL back in November. 

PERFECT PAIR

Two college rookies. Two different positions. Two pleasant surprises.

The Oilers may not have predicted exactly how the two free-agents' development might go, but there's no doubt they're happy with the progress.

Their journeys may have differed slightly, but both Caggiula and Benning had obstacles to overcome before pulling the Oilers sweater on for their NHL debuts.

"I got sent down at the beginning of the year and he was injured. So we both had our hurdles to start off," said Benning

Much like the parallels in their college hockey backgrounds, the ups and downs of a rookie season in the NHL has helped evolve their relationship on and off the ice. It seemed a friendship was scripted from the moment each of them signed. 

"Just having that guy you can relate to and lean on and talk to when something is going tough, your game isn't there or you're tired; it helps a lot," said Benning

Off and on the ice, the two have experienced any growing pains together.

Benning grew up just outside of Edmonton and with Caggiula coming from Ontario, Benning has made sure to help his fellow rookie acclimatize to life in a new city.

"I've taken him to a couple restaurants and had him over a few times for family dinners too," said Benning.

Initially the two were living together and, naturally, a video game rivalry developed. One they have maintained throughout the season.

"The two of us can play Call of Duty for hours," said Caggiula

"I think I'm better at Call of Duty, but Drake's got me when we play Battlefield," said Benning on the pair's Xbox rivalries.

Though their stalls are across the dressing room from one another, the pair is as close as they come. Their friendship has helped them navigate the ups and downs of their first pro seasons. As they move forward as Oilers youngsters with potential, they do so together.