A smiling Zach Benson talks to the media Wednesday. ©2023

NHL Draft: In Zach Benson, Sabres add aggressive, dynamic junior star

NASHVILLE – Winger Zach Benson had been a Buffalo Sabres prospect for about 20 minutes, but as a sat there smiling wearing a No. 23 blue jersey in Bridgestone Arena, he already seemed comfortable in his new organization.

Benson, the 13th overall pick at Wednesday’s NHL Draft, formed half of a lethal duo with Sabres center prospect Matt Savoie last season, combining for a whopping 74 goals goals and 193 points. As a 15-year-old Western Hockey League rookie in 2020-21, he learned the rigors of junior from Sabres center Peyton Krebs.

On the ice, Benson’s fast, tenacious game – he’s listed at just 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds – makes up for his lack of size and fits with the Sabres’ aggressive style.

“They want a speedy team that plays with a lot of skill, work ethic, competitiveness,” said a smiling Benson, who met with the Sabres at the NHL Scouting Combine. “For me, I just want to keep competing, keep getting better. With the roster now, they’re looking pretty good. So I couldn’t be more excited.”

General manager Kevyn Adams said the Sabres had targeted Benson, a youngster he said possesses the talent and passion they desire, for a long time.

“The fact that he was playing with Matt Savoie in Winnipeg, we had quite a few viewings of him,” said Adams, who received texts from Savoie and Krebs following the pick. “He’s a special hockey player. He’s intelligent, he’s extremely diligent on both sides of the puck. I mean, his offensive numbers were pretty elite but he also was very responsible defensively.

“You guys have heard me talk about projection. We felt like this player has the upside that often you don’t get at that spot at the draft. The way the list was falling, we were starting to get pretty excited this player might be there for us.”

Adams said in scouting meetings, every scout that had watched Benson over the last two seasons believed he was the best player on the ice.

“He has that kind of self-awareness and understanding of who he is as a player and what he has to do to have success,” he said.

Benson, 18, takes pride in his work ethic, something he said he learned from his family, which runs a company that stages carnivals. He said his skill set mixed with his competitiveness gives him his greatest edge.

“I compete every shift and I don’t really take a shift off,” the affable Benson said. “With my skill set, I think that goes a long way. I think just my smarts, getting to places and knowing where to be.”

Benson and Savoie, of course, enjoy dynamic chemistry and know where each other will be. If Savoie doesn’t crack Buffalo’s roster next year, they could team up again in Wenatchee, Wash., where the Winnipeg franchise moved earlier this month.

“I mean, me and Sav played the whole year together on the same line, (penalty kill) together, played on the power play together,” said Benson, who scored 36 goals and 98 points in 60 games last season. “Now to be sharing the same NHL jersey, it’s pretty amazing. I’m looking forward to it.”

Benson will be playing next season without James Patrick as his coach. The Ice’s new ownership group let the former Sabres defenseman go. Benson said he met the team’s new general manager and associate coach Wednesday.

Losing Patrick, his coach three seasons, will be difficult.

“It’s been huge, obviously,” Benson said. “Learning from a guy like James Patrick every day, it’s pretty awesome and you learn a lot of stuff from a guy that’s played 20 years in the NHL.”

When Benson joined the Ice three and a half years ago, little was expected of him. But he quickly wowed Patrick, earning regular duty as the WHL played a 24-game “bubble” schedule because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He scored 10 goals and 20 points that season and never looked back.

“It was huge,” he said of what the season did for his development. “Obviously, getting to play as a 15-year-old, not many people get to do that. Getting another year to learn from (Patrick) and then, obviously, I wouldn’t have gotten to play with Peyton, so getting to learn from him is super impactful in my career and I couldn’t be more thankful.”

Benson, NHL Central Scouting’s sixth-ranked prospect among North American skaters, said Krebs is “probably the best leader I ever played for.”

“He taught me so many things, whether it was saying it to me or just showing me on the ice or off the ice,” he said. “Super good leader.”

Benson has compiled 71 goals and 181 points in 142 career WHL outings and 16 goals and 40 points in 30 playoffs contests.

The Sabres have seven more picks today. Adams said he tried to move up in the first round and then back into it in at about the 21st spot.

In other draft news, the San Jose Sharks selected winger Quentin Musty, a Hamburg native, 26th overall.

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