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THE MOJ: Intelligence, lack of ego have Chilliwack’s Benson in the NHL at 18

B.C.-born Buffalo Sabre winger holding his own as the league’s 2nd-youngest player
“He’s had an incredible season. He made our team because he’s a very intelligent player – specifically without the puck,” Buffalo Sabres head coach Don Granato on Zach Benson’s (pictured) rookie season. Buffalo Sabres photo

The more people you talk to about Zach Benson, the more you realize the Chilliwack Minor Hockey product is going to be a bona fide NHL star.

Benson is in his rookie year with the Buffalo Sabres but he isn’t exactly putting up numbers like ‘that other’ B.C. kid who’s doing his thing with the Chicago Blackhawks.

After Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to the Canucks in Vancouver, Benson’s season totals are a modest 9 goals and 14 assists for 23 points in 59 games. That’s 31 points behind North Vancouver’s Connor Bedard, who is the frontrunner for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.

In fact, Benson is 14th in the overall rookie scoring race but there’s one major caveat.

He’s doing it as the NHL’s second-youngest player at 18-years-of-age with only Bedard being younger.

“He’s had an incredible season. He made our team because he’s a very intelligent player – specifically without the puck. There are a lot of things that you would have to send a player back to junior or to the American Hockey League to learn (such as) playing without the puck, positioning without the puck, ability to compliment linemates, high compete and the ability to deal with the strength and size of opposing players despite only being 18-years-old,” said Sabres head coach Don Granato. “Those are all things you get sent back down for but he’s been great in all of those areas and he’s been consistent in all of them from day one in training camp.”

That consistency is one of the things that long-time Sabre color analyst Rob Ray has noticed on a nightly basis. Ray has seen a lot of players come and go during his 25-plus years with the organization as a player and now broadcaster.

The former tough guy never pulled any punches as a player or as an analyst, so when Ray is praising an 18-year-old, you know Zach Benson is doing the right things.

“I think he’s fit in very well. He’s very well-respected amongst the guys. He understands he’s a rookie and he knows his place. A lot of guys come in and are cocky and demand more. This guy just does his thing and he’s gained a ton of respect. He has zero ego. He just goes out and works hard every day. He’s been put in different situations but every time he goes out onto the ice he plays the same way. He’s never been a liability at any point,” noted Ray.

While some touted Benson as a Top-10 pick in last year’s NHL Entry Draft, he fell to the Sabres at the 13th spot. A highly skilled player with the WHL’s Winnipeg Ice, Benson’s lack of size scared some teams off.

At 5’10’ and 170 pounds, what Benson lacks in size is made up for with intelligence.

“He’s gotten to be advanced as he is because he’s a self-learner and he’s a quick learner. You can present things to him between shifts and he can execute. He can adjust as fast as any guy on our team. That’s a talent on his own,” explained Granato.

As for Benson, he’s just loving it all – especially playing in front of friends and family in Vancouver for the first time.

Benson even admits he had that ‘pinch me’ moment prior to the game against the Canucks.

“Honestly, it was in warm-up. Looking around, it was pretty crazy. To be able to step on the ice for the first time there that was kind of another “welcome to the NHL moment,” said Benson, who attended Canucks games growing up.

Playing at the NHL level means that when Benson now goes into a corner, it’s with a grown man – not a 17-year-old kid as was the case in the WHL. Players are bigger, faster and stronger. The same decisions have to be made but with much less time and space.

It means trying to find out what he can and can’t do at the NHL level. The good thing about Granato is that he’s given Benson enough rope to see what he can and can’t do without benching him or even scratching him from the lineup. Benson has reciprocated by learning form his mistakes.

“It’s my first year. You’re going to make mistakes and I’ve made mistakes. Donnie let’s you know when you make a mistake, but he also is not going to park you on the bench the rest of the game because you made a little mistake,” said Benson.


* The Canucks opened the scoring on a first period goal by Conor Garland and took a 2-0 lead when Elias Pettersson scored in the second period. The Sabres cut the lead to 2-1 midway through the third period with Rasmus Dahlin’s marker but Pettersson scored his second of the game into an empty net with 1:51 remaining to give the Canucks a 3-1 lead. Dahlin made things interesting when he got his second of the game with 22 seconds left but Vancouver hung on for the win.

* “It was a good effort. Obviously, another good start – I think are starts have been really good lately – and I thought when they scored I liked our response. That’s something we’ve been working on,” J.T. Miller stated afterwards.

* Vancouver goalie Casey DeSmith made 15 saves in the game while Buffalo’s Devon Levi made 31 stops.

* Miller took a shot off his foot in the first period and went to the dressing room for the remainder of the period before returning to start the second. Needless to say, Miller’s injury did cause Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet some anxiety. “I did think for a second ‘here we go’ but the trainer came back and said he’s coming back. That was big. It’s never fun when one of your best players takes a shot. You’re thinking the worst,” said Tocchet.

* Former longtime Canucks physician Dr. Ross Davidson paid a visit to the alumni suite on Tuesday night. Davidson, who was one of the founders of the UBC Sports Medicine Clinic in the 1980’s, spends the bulk of his time in his New Zealand but still maintains a residence in Vancouver and visits on a regular basis.

Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media.

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