BUFFALO – Zach Benson’s offensive production did not earn him a roster spot. Sure, leading the Sabres in preseason scoring helped the rookie stand out. But to crack the NHL at 18, he needed to grasp a different side of hockey.
“He could be as prolific as anybody offensively, but if he didn’t have … defensive instincts, (was) positionally pretty sound, he wouldn’t be on the roster, he just wouldn’t,” Sabres coach Don Granato said following Tuesday’s practice.
Most high-end teenage prospects are raw talents. They might be able to skate fast and dazzle with the puck, but their defensive abilities often lag behind, making them liabilities.
“What you rarely see out of 18-year-olds is the ability to play both sides of the puck and the ability to be defensively responsible,” Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams said Monday.
That’s part of what makes Benson so unique. His maturity belies his age.
Granato said Benson understands being strong defensively allows him to get the puck quicker and more often.
Adams said he examined video of every time Benson touched the puck during his six exhibition outings. He wanted to look beyond the offense and learn what else was transpiring with the 5-foot-10, 170-pound winger on the ice.
“He’s really done a nice job regardless of what line he’s on or what player he’s been with of being additive to the line,” he said. “That might mean a play in the D-zone where he makes a little smart chip out to space. It’s not just about offense.
“So that’s what for me really got to believe is the right thing moving forward for him. And he earned it.”
So on Thursday against the New York Rangers, less than four months after the Sabres drafted him 13th overall, Benson is expected to be in the opening night lineup at KeyBank Center.
When Adams told him Saturday he would sticking around instead of returning to the junior Western Hockey League, Benson said he “was pretty pumped.”
“It’s still day by day,” he said of how he’s handling being in the NHL. “But it’s still cool to be on the opening night roster. That was one of my goals coming into camp, and now I just look to keep going here.”
Benson’s teammates, many of whom are just a few years older, have helped him acclimate and feel welcome.
“It’s felt like I’ve been a part of this team for a couple of years now,” said Benson, who scored four goals and seven points in the preseason. “So it’s been awesome. … Every single guy in this room is so welcoming.”
Benson can play nine games before the first year of his entry-level contract kicks in. A few weeks ago, before he became training camp’s biggest surprise, the Sabres never expected him to make the 23-man roster.
“He has exceeded any thought that we could have had coming in,” Granato said.
Adams said the Sabres “want to be forced into making hard decisions.”
“If someone clearly deserves an opportunity, we’re going to do what we think is right to help us win hockey games,” he said. “… I had a good chat with Zach a couple of days ago. We’re gonna just (put) no pressure, no expectation on him. He’s got an opportunity to now just play and have fun and we’ll monitor it, we’ll see how it goes.
“But we believe in him, we’re excited about him, and for me it’s just making sure that we look at what’s best for our team today, how do we win hockey games, what’s best for Zach Benson in the short-term and then what’s best for him in the long-term? And that’ll be how we’ll kind of come to the decision over the next few weeks.”
A year or two ago, the Sabres likely wouldn’t have kept Benson following an impressive camp. Back then, they were in development mode. Now, having fallen one win short of the playoffs last season, they’ve entered a new phase.
“We’ve gotten to the point where we need to dial in on winning,” Granato said. “Now we have to be even more patient and persistent when we move into this phase, because it’s a whole different world for our guys, and our team.
“But I do think Zach, at this point, he’s shown that we can keep taking a look at him. … He’s helping us with the bottom line right now, and that’s the key.”
Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt tweaked something in his upper body Monday and missed Tuesday’s practice. Granato expects him back Wednesday.