BUFFALO – Forget, for a moment, about the dynamic goal Sabres winger Zach Benson scored Wednesday.
Seconds before Benson, 18, utilized a scintillating between-the-legs backhand to beat Washington Capitals goalie Darcy Kuemper for his first NHL goal, he made two subtle plays that belied his age.
The maturity the rookie showcased – coach Don Granato called the plays “significant” – helps illustrate why the Sabres have chosen to keep him, at least for now.
Benson, the 13th overall pick this year, played his 10th game Friday, activating the first season of his three-year, entry-level contract.
Granato explained how Benson created his goal in Buffalo’s 4-3 overtime road loss by skating from one side of the rink to the other and forcing a turnover. After the puck came loose, he positioned himself in the left circle to grab a pass from winger Victor Olofsson.
“Trust me, that’s high-end when you’re positioned around the rink like that to force the turnover,” Granato said prior to Friday’s 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in KeyBank Center. “… Those are the things he does really well you don’t notice all the time, or you wouldn’t notice at all, actually, how he’s forcing people into peculiar positions.”
Once he has the puck, Benson’s skill can take over. Naturally, his goal, destined to be on every top-10 list this season, went viral.
“My mom and dad were pretty pumped and my brothers,” Benson said of the goal. “But there’s tons of reactions. I couldn’t even pick one.”
Benson’s time in Buffalo this season was expected to short. Like most first-round picks, it was believed he would play some preseason games during training camp before going back to the Wenatchee Wild, his Western Hockey League team. But he quickly impressed the Sabres, showcasing an aggressive, mature game to complement his skill.
The 5-foot-9, 163-pound Benson earned extra preseason action and led the team in scoring. Instead of sending him to Wenatchee – as a teenager with junior eligibility, he’s too young to play in the AHL – the Sabres awarded him a spot in the opening night lineup.
“He’s been good from Day One at camp,” Granato said. “If he wasn’t good and proficient without the puck and positioning and play, he wouldn’t have even been on the opening day roster. And then he shows attributes with a real capacity to grow game by game. I think he’s continued to add things to his game because he’s an intelligent player.”
Benson missed seven games earlier this month with a lower-body injury. He began Friday’s game with one point in each of his last three games and five points overall.
“He had an injury that he had to deal with and he dealt with that, played through it and was pretty good and came back,” Granato said. “It was like he hadn’t missed a beat. He was actually better, so he absorbed stuff while he was out. So he projects well. He’s got those attributes. …
“The wear and tear of an NHL season on anybody is tough to project. … But it’s still day to day with a young guy. But he’s fit in chemistry-wise with just about anybody he played with. That, the barometer has shown that he has a high level of hockey sense because he can fit in with anybody he’s played with.”
Benson, who skated at left wing Friday alongside center Dylan Cozens and JJ Peterka, said his confidence has helped buoy him.
“I’m pretty confident in myself,” said Benson, who was informed by general manager Kevyn Adams on Friday morning he would play his 10th contest. “You need to have confidence at this level if you want to succeed. My confidence has never really wavered. I’ve been confident kind of since Day One. That goes to show how welcoming this group is and how comfortable they make you feel quickly.”
Benson hasn’t secured a roster spot for the rest of the season. The Sabres have two forwards – center Tage Thompson and winger Jack Quinn – injured. When they’re healthy perhaps next month, the team might have to make a move.
The Sabres could let Benson join Team Canada in the coming weeks for the World Junior Championship.
The Sabres on Friday dressed 11 forwards and seven defensemen again out of necessity, Granato said.
Winger Jordan Greenway missed the game with an undisclosed injury. Center Peyton Krebs moved back into the lineup after sitting out Wednesday.
The Sabres don’t have any other healthy forwards.
Cozens on Friday ditched the “fishbowl” full face shield he had worn in the six games following his return from an upper-body injury, most likely a broken nose.
Cozens, who sported a regular visor again, had trouble seeing with a full shield.
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