Zach Benson goes through fitness testing June 10 at the NHL Scouting Combine. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

NHL Draft: Zach Benson, Matt Savoie’s center, could be strong pick for Sabres

BUFFALO – When the Winnipeg Ice reconvened to begin an abbreviated season in 2021, James Patrick figured Zach Benson would mostly practice with the junior team. If things went well, the coach hoped the diminutive 15-year-old might play about five games.

In the Western Hockey League, the 5-foot-5, 140-pound rookie winger would be facing opponents four or five years older and nearly a foot taller and 50 or 60 pounds heavier.

Patrick still laughs recalling how Benson “looked like he was 10” when he joined the Ice’s team Zoom calls early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a big ‘holy smokes’ for me,” said Patrick, who watched Benson develop into a top NHL Draft prospect over their three years together. “Now I look back on it and it’s comical.”

When Patrick finally saw Benson up close, he quickly learned the youngster played fearlessly. Patrick, who played 21 seasons in the NHL, including his final six with Buffalo Sabres, had wanted to ease him into major junior hockey.

“So the first practice he was the best player on the ice,” he said. “So I said, ‘Jeez, we might have to play him.’”

Benson ended up playing all 24 games during the Ice’s “bubble” season at the University of Regina.

“He so far exceeded expectations, it blew us away,” Patrick said. “It started with the very first practice and then how well he played.”

Early on, Patrick had planned to protect Benson from big, physical opponents. But on his first shift, Winnipeg iced the puck, so he immediately had to stay out to face a member of the Brandon Wheat Kings well over 200 pounds.

“I was just praying he wasn’t going to get hit, and he was totally fine,” Patrick said. “He knew how to position himself. He plays with his head up. He is relentless in his pursuit of the puck. So that’s how he started.”

Benson said: “As a smaller guy, I guess you kind of got to play bigger than your size to be, I guess, a star at the next level. So I take pride in going to the dirty areas.”

Benson recorded 10 goals and 20 points that first season. By 2022-23, he was one of junior hockey’s elite talents, scoring 36 goals and 98 points in 60 games while forming a dynamic duo with Sabres center prospect Matt Savoie. Benson added seven goals and 17 points in 15 playoff outings.

He flanked Savoie all season in every situation: even strength, power play and penalty kill.

“Matt’s a heck of a hockey player,” Benson said June 10 following fitness testing at the NHL Scouting Combine in LECOM Harborcenter.. “… We had a lot of good chemistry on the ice, but we’re close off the ice as well.”

Benson, who’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, will almost certainly be taken in the first round next Wednesday in Nashville. NHL Central Scouting ranks him sixth among North American skaters.

If Benson lasts until the 13th pick, it could be hard for the Sabres to pass him up. Imagine him teaming up again someday with Savoie, the ninth overall pick in 2022, in Buffalo.

“There was no pair better than them that I saw in Western League this year,” Patrick said.

Benson’s passion and affable personality also make him a unique prospect.

“He’d always be looking at me with this grin,” Patrick said. “I’m in a meeting talking to the team and I might … call out our leaders and he’s got the grin on.”

Patrick would try not to laugh.

“It’s a grin about he’s so competitive, so driven,” he said. “But he has fun at the rink. And it’s a not a goofing off type of fun. Like, I’m just telling you this, when we lost games in the playoffs, there’s no one more (ticked) off and mad than him.

“But he’s so liked by his teammates. He loves being around his teammates. He loves hockey and he has no ego and he’s a great player. So they love him.”

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