BUFFALO – Some top prospects carry what Sabres captain Kyle Okposo called “a naivety” into pro hockey. They’ve grown up as the best player on their team, so graduating to the sport’s highest levels doesn’t intimidate them.
“There’s no learning curve of the (AHL) where it’s like, ‘This is pro hockey,’” Okposo said following Monday’s practice in KeyBank Center. “It’s like, ‘No, I’ve always been the best player and this is what I do.’ And if your game is mature enough to do that, there’s going to be no confidence lost when playing pro hockey.
“That’s kind of where (Zach Benson) is.”
Over the past month, Okposo has watched Benson, 18, keep generating confidence and perform so well he earned an NHL roster spot just months after the Sabres drafted him 13th overall. In his first days here, the rookie winger has consistently showcased a tenacious style that complements his skill.
In Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the New York Islanders, Benson assisted on both goals, his first NHL points. In the second period, he created winger Jordan Greenway’s goal by carrying the puck over the blue line and taking a hit. He later registered the primary assist on center Casey Mittelstadt’s tying goal.
“(Benson) has a mature game and he’s always been the best player, so he has all this confidence and it’s still working in the NHL,” said Okposo, whose 0-2 Sabres begin a four-game home stand tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning. “So more power to him.”
Through two games, the Sabres have scored just three goals. Benson and Mittelstadt each have a team-high two points skating alongside Greenway, a trio coach Don Granato said “was a perfect line” in New York.
“We’re getting to the inside, playing with speed and pace,” Benson said.
So far, the combination of center Tage Thompson and winger Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch, one of the league’s most lethal lines last year, hasn’t scored.
Perhaps they can break through tonight. Tampa Bay allowed 80 shots on goal during two weekend losses. With goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy injured, the Lightning have been using the inexperienced tandem of Jonas Johansson, who played 13 games for the Sabres, and Matt Tomkins, a 29-year-old rookie fresh off his NHL debut.
Granato said the Thompson line will eventually “hit a rhythm, find a stride.”
“When you have three talented guys like that, everybody’s rested for three months to five months to six months,” he said. “So every athlete in the NHL has built all this strength and all these reserves up. And some of the guys that are maybe less talented can keep up with the guy that’s more talented. …
“But as the season wears on, talent just keeps rising.”
Benson’s talent will likely keep rising as he grows more comfortable.
Granato said at each stage of the season – from the Prospects Challenge rookie tournament to training camp and now the regular season – the Sabres tried to temper the excitement surrounding Benson.
But in every situation, Granato said indicators told them the youngster’s mature play would translate to the regular season.
“It’s hockey sense, it’s (being) positionally sound,” he said. “He has offensive gifts, but he’s not a liability at all. Usually you got to send the guy to the American League or back to junior because they don’t want to defend in the NHL, they don’t want to put themselves in the right position, or the opponent on the other side is just too physically opposing for him. They need to go back and train and get a little bigger and stronger. He’s addressed all of those.”
Benson utilizes his 5-foot-9, 163-pound frame to his advantage, often getting under opponents. Granato said he can disrupt pucks and force guys 30 or 40 pounds heavier to botch a play.
“Those are the intangibles that showed in game one and two that were very effective, and, obviously, he has the skill to convert once he does those,” he said.
Benson said his main focus “is just being hard on plays, not giving up, being hard on my stick.”
“Not being the heaviest guy out there, you got to be real hard on your stick,” he said.
Benson’s ability to be hard on opponents and understand the flow of the game has caught Mittelstadt’s attention.
“What’s stood out really to me with him is he’s a hound,” he said. “He’s all over the puck all the time, he’s a great forechecker. He’s up in everyone’s grill pretty much all the time.”
Notes: The Sabres haven’t started a season with three consecutive losses since beginning 2017-18 0-4-1. … Granato said rookie center Matt Savoie, out since hurting his elbow and shoulder in the Prospects Challenge, is “looking more and more comfortable” in practice. He doesn’t have a timetable for his return.