Zach Benson has played just 34 NHL games. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Hockey smarts help Sabres rookie Zach Benson solidify top line

BUFFALO – Early in Monday afternoon’s 3-0 win, Sabres coach Don Granato shuffled his lines to give them more directness.

Most notably, he shifted Casey Mittelstadt from left wing on the top line, where he had been subbing for Jeff Skinner, to center, his natural position, between Jordan Greenway and captain Kyle Okposo.

To replace Mittelstadt alongside center Tage Thompson and Alex Tuch, he promoted 18-year-old rookie Zach Benson, who began the game playing with Greenway and Eric Robinson.

Granato said sometimes when Mittelstadt skates with Thompson and Tuch, their skill makes them “get a little bit too fancy, a little less direct.”

“Benny’s always in front of the net, always on the puck,” Granato said following the Sabres’ 3-0 win over the San Jose Sharks in KeyBank Center. “So I knew the guys would respond to that.”

Think about that. To stabilize his top line and give it some consistency, Granato moved up the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Benson, a teenager who’s just 34 games into his NHL career. The youngster hasn’t scored a goal since Dec. 15, a 13-game stretch.

But his maturity and hockey smarts made him the right guy to put with two of the Sabres’ most talented forwards.

Despite his limited experience, Benson, the 13th overall pick in 2023, processes the game better than many veterans.

“It’s a very young player,” said Granato, whose Sabres host the Chicago Blackhawks tonight. “But that’s why he made our roster because of his play without the puck, his intuitive, his feel for the game and positional (awareness). Literally when we show a clip of what to do systematically or an adjustment, he’s one of the top guys that gets it and can go out and execute it. Just a positioning shift or read this play. This team or their top line is doing this, here’s our adjustment.

“He’s probably the best on our team at being able to adjust immediately, take what was told in the locker room or shown in the locker room and apply it immediately on the ice. The game is no stress for him. He’s got a lot of hockey sense and he appreciates his play without the puck.”

So far, Benson has compiled four goals and 14 points this season. Granato said when he finds a scoring rhythm, “we’ve got a pretty special player.”

“In the interim, I can tell you I have complete confidence putting him on the ice in any situation,” he said. “He’s smart, he makes other players better.”

Sabres center Dylan Cozens played a season-low 11 minutes, 25 seconds in Monday’s victory, about more than three minutes less than his average. Why?

Granato said Cozens, 22, is dealing with some “soreness.” His limited ice time wasn’t punishment.

“I didn’t have any problem with Dylan when we switched the lines,” he said.

The Sabres had Tuesday off.

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