Zach Benson has scored four goals this season. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Mature game helping Sabres rookie Zach Benson earn keep in NHL

BUFFALO – Zach Benson, the new left winger on the Sabres’ second line alongside center Dylan Cozens and JJ Peterka, hasn’t recorded a point in his last 11 outings. The rookie scored his last goal back on Dec. 15, 18 games ago.

Benson, 18, has compiled four goals in 38 games this season, one less than Jack Quinn, the player he’s replacing, has scored in 17 contests.

Still, after Quinn suffered a lower-body injury Jan. 27 that will sideline him six to eight weeks, coach Don Granato quickly promoted Benson, saying “he’s ready to step in.”

No one should be surprised. Granato has trusted Benson, the 13th overall pick in 2023, from the get-go this season, utilizing him all over the lineup.

Most coaches, of course, rarely show that type of confidence in a neophyte who’s struggling to score.

His aggressive, mature game – he processes the action like a veteran – has allowed him to fit in everywhere. Last month, for example, Granato moved him up with center Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner to stabilize the top line and give it some consistency.

Benson’s offensive production doesn’t worry Granato. He believes goals and assists will materialize. Right now, he said the youngster’s creativity and ability to force plays can help Cozens and Peterka.

“He’s always positioned around the puck,” Granato said following Monday’s practice in KeyBank Center, where the Sabres host the Dallas Stars tonight. “The other team usually has to go through him. So his play without the puck is exceptional, and we get it back faster and quicker. His teammates get it back. Defensemen get it back faster, quicker, easier.

“He gets pucks out of the zone and gets pucks where they need to be. He can extend a possession. If you send it to him and there’s a defender on him and he’s got no support, he can usually buy one second, two seconds, three seconds, which is elite.”

The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Benson, who has scored 14 points this season, believes he and his new linemates “all think the game kind of similar.”

“They’re, obviously, two super smart players and they’re two different kind of players,” he said. “I feel that we complement each other really well. JJ is super dynamic and super offensive and, obviously, Cozey is a shooter. He can rip the puck and he’s super reliable in the D-zone.”

Benson, a prolific scorer in junior, has established himself as a reliable presence, but his offense hasn’t caught up to other parts of his game.

“Everyone wants to score more,” said Benson, who has just a 6.9 percent shooting percentage. “Everyone wants to get points. It’s just playing a complete game and not cheating the game. Going to the net. Just being consistent.”

He has generated 55 scoring chances at five-on-five, according to, the seventh-highest total on the Sabres and four more than Casey Mittelstadt, who has recorded a team-high 36 even-strength points.

But Benson hasn’t shifted his focus to offense.

“He’s playing more responsibly,” Granato said. “He’s not getting caught ever cheating for offense. He’s working on that foundation. … You can cheat for offense and, if you’re in his position, maybe have five or eight more goals. But you also might be minus-15 doing it.

“So I like where his game is at. I do think the scoring will follow.”

While Granato has thrown Benson into the fray, he understands he’s still less than four months into his NHL career.

On Jan. 24, he scratched Benson for the Sabres’ 5-3 road win over the Los Angeles Kings, giving him an opportunity to step back and watch the game from a different perspective.

“You sit up top, you really watch for the little plays and, obviously, it looks a lot easier from up there than when you’re on the ice, but you see the plays that are there and sometimes the plays that you make that aren’t there,” Benson said.

A breather during the grind of a marathon 82-game schedule should help Benson, who never played more than 60 regular-season contests in the Western Hockey League. He has played just once in the last two weeks – the Sabres had their bye week followed by the NHL All-Star break – meaning he should be fresh against Dallas.

Granato said winger Zemgus Girgensons and defenseman Erik Johnson have both been cleared to return from their upper-body injuries and will play tonight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *