Zach Benson has played 25 NHL games. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

No World Juniors, no problem: Sabres’ Zach Benson thrilled to be in Buffalo

BUFFALO – Earlier this month, having likely secured a spot with the Sabres for the rest of the season, rookie Zach Benson moved out of a hotel and into the basement of the spacious suburban home defenseman Rasmus Dahlin recently purchased.

“I have room and he needed a place to stay,” Dahlin said following Friday’s practice in KeyBank Center. “I just figured he’s such a great guy and he brings such a positive attitude, so it was a no-brainer for me to ask him. I’m very happy he wanted to. I’m having a blast and I hope he’s having a blast, too.”

Benson, 18, and Dahlin, 23, play video games, pool and table tennis together. Benson called his new living arrangements “the best.”

“I couldn’t be happier,” said Benson, the 13th overall pick this year.

Right now, with Dahlin’s family in town for the holidays, the teammates mostly watch hockey.

“World Juniors is coming up and I think he wishes he was there,” Dahlin said. “So we’re going to watch a ton of World Juniors now, too.”

Benson will watch the tournament featuring hockey’s best teenage talent, which started Tuesday, knowing he could’ve represented Team Canada. His country inquired about his services, but the Sabres decided Buffalo would be the best place for him.

If he was simply occupying a roster spot – moving in and out of the lineup and getting a feel for the NHL – then they likely would’ve loaned the winger to Canada. But he has quickly developed into one of their most consistent forwards, showcasing a smart, tenacious game that complements his skill and belies his 25 games of NHL experience.

The Sabres, who host the Boston Bruins tonight at KeyBank Center following their three-day Christmas break, need the youngster badly.

“You’d love to play for your country, but you’d love to be playing in the NHL at 18,” Benson said earlier this month. “So it’s, obviously, a win-win, whether I went or whether I stayed. I’m happy to stay and I’m getting good opportunity.”

Benson, who’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, has seized that opportunity, in part, because he plays so aggressively. In his first days in the NHL, he has consistently displayed a willingness to go to the so-called “dirty areas” and pay a price against opponents usually much larger than him.

It’s no coincidence he has scored all four of his goals at the net.

“That’s one component that’s been a driver in him, at 18 years old, becoming as skilled in this game as he is, that is a competitive trait,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “(He thinks), ‘I’m going right to where the goals are scored, and I don’t care if the guy next to me is 6-foot-5, I’m going there.’ So that’s a determination, a characteristic, a very determined guy.”

Granato said playing so fearlessly drives up Benson’s skill level.

“He’s a skilled player because he’s done things like that thousands of times,” he said. “He goes to those areas not even realizing that the guy’s much, much bigger than him, and he’s learned how to deal with it, and he’s good at it.”

Naturally, Benson often irritates opponents by getting the best of them.

“I enjoy that,” he said. “I think getting to the front of the net allows me to get under their skin a bit.”

Benson has always frustrated bigger opponents in different ways. For example, growing up, his coaches couldn’t believe such a small player could protect the puck so well.

“I’ve never been the biggest guy,” he said. “I still remember back when I was 11, 12, my coaches would always come up to me and be like, ‘How do you keep the puck there and how do you protect it? You’re going against a guy, you’re 5-foot-1, the guy’s 6-foot-2 already.’ It’s kind of always blown my coaches away.”

That, of course, has continued in the NHL.

“He comes out with the puck more than he doesn’t in those situations, and you see older players in this league get very aggravated at that,” Granato said.

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