BUFFALO – As the roster spot he earned out of training camp illustrates, the Sabres feel comfortable awarding rookie winger Zach Benson NHL action.
Still, Benson, 18, has essentially been on a trial run. He can play nine games before the first year of his entry-level contract kicks in. So far, he has dressed for six contests.
Benson, the 13th overall pick this year, has missed the last seven games with a lower-body injury.
Now, the prospect appears ready to play. He practiced on a line Thursday at left wing alongside center Casey Mittelstadt and JJ Peterka.
Signs point to Benson returning for tonight’s game against the Winnipeg Jets, the start of a three-game road trip.
He likely has just a few opportunities left to show the Sabres he deserves to stay instead of being returned to the junior Western Hockey League.
“There’s a comfort level in what we’ve seen, but these three games will impact (our decision),” Sabres coach Don Granato said following Thursday’s practice in KeyBank Center. “He’s done a nice job. We have, obviously, that line in the sand at nine (games) where the decision has to be made.
“And no decision has been made yet, so these are three big ones.”
The Sabres tried to help Benson acclimate to the big leagues by having him travel with the team as he recovered from his injury.
“He’s had time to sit back and be in meetings and observe ups and downs through other guys,” Granato said. “He’s a pretty intuitive guy, I would imagine he’s picked up a lot and I’m excited to see where he is now coming off of this.”
Benson said simply watching games from the press box has helped him.
“You can learn so much from up there,” said Benson, who has recorded two assists this season. “Just the little plays that are there. The little extra, whether it’s .2 or .3 seconds that you actually have, you can see that from up top. I’m going to try to implement that into my game and then, obviously, that extra couple weeks with the guys, I’m starting to feel a lot more comfortable.”
As a teenager whose rights are owned by a Canadian Hockey League team, the Wenatchee Wild, Benson can’t play in the AHL until his junior season ends.
The Sabres sent Benson’s junior teammate, center Matt Savoie, to Wenatchee last week following his NHL debut. Benson and Savoie starred for the Winnipeg Ice before the franchise moved to Washington State this year.