Zach Benson has scored three goals during the preseason. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

Prospect Zach Benson’s performance gives Sabres intriguing roster option

BUFFALO – As Sabres prospect Zach Benson quickly became the talk of training camp and began pushing for a roster spot, his exploits hardly surprised center Peyton Krebs.

Krebs, after all, has watched him do it before. Three seasons ago, the Winnipeg Ice expected Benson, then a 15-year-old rookie, would mostly practice when he joined the junior team for its truncated bubble schedule in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Instead, the diminutive winger impressed the Ice so much he played all 24 games, scoring 10 goals and 20 points.

“Lit it up, so for him to come out here and do the same, it wasn’t a surprise to me,” said Krebs, who was in his final season in Winnipeg.

Still, Benson’s terrific preseason has surprised others. Prospects competing for NHL spots as 18-year-olds are usually top-five picks. The Sabres drafted Benson 13th overall.

In addition to his skill, his aggressive style and ability to hunt pucks has helped him acclimate to his new surroundings.

“He doesn’t back down to a fight, and … a lot of guys nowadays are waiting,” Krebs said. “But he doesn’t wait and you can see that in his game. He’s not going to wait for someone else to do it; he’ll go get the puck and make the play. I think, obviously, he has the skill to make those plays, but I think from the start of it it’s that ability to hunt the puck.”

In playing so well – he has three goals and a team-best five points in five outings entering tonight’s finale – Benson has forced the Sabres to make an interesting decision.

Is the 5-foot-10, 170-pound youngster ready for the rigors of the NHL? He would be the first rookie to crack the Sabres out of camp in his draft year since defenseman Rasmus Dahlin in 2018-19.

“My goal is to come in here and make their decision hard, and I kind of look to keep doing that day to day,” Benson said following Thursday’s practice in KeyBank Center.

The Sabres must finalize their 23-man regular-season roster by 5 p.m. Monday. Twelve forward spots appear to be taken, leaving perhaps one available.

Brandon Biro, who has enjoyed a strong camp, is also likely being considered. He must clear waivers to be sent to the Rochester Americans.

Biro acknowledged he’s a bit excited and nervous.

“I don’t think I’m too anxious or anything,” he said. “Like, there’s no point in putting too much pressure on yourself.”

It’s unclear how the roster might be broken down by position. Normally, the Sabres might keep 13 forwards. But right now, they have eight NHL defensemen and three goalies. If they keep extras, that could mean one less spot up front.

Benson might fit nicely in the place injured winger Jack Quinn was expected to occupy among the top six before he tore his Achilles tendon during offseason training.

On Thursday, Benson practiced at right wing beside top center Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner, a spot he has often occupied during camp. He will likely skate there tonight at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are expected to dress superstar Sidney Crosby and most of their top players.

Benson, who scored in Wednesday’s 4-3 road loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, hasn’t just compiled some numbers during games.

“He’s just shown yesterday what he’s showed on Day One,” Sabres coach Don Granato said Thursday. “There’s been no wear or tear or drop. You would suspect the first day when you see somebody come out and they’re really, really good, your question is, ‘Well, that player had a great day, Day One. Can he sustain that?’ …

“He’s been able to sustain it all the way through. He was one of our better players last night in our game again. That’s a real good indicator.”

Benson can’t be assigned to the AHL, so if the Sabres don’t keep him, he must be sent to Wenatchee, Washington, where the Winnipeg franchise moved this year and was renamed the Wild.

Former Sabres defenseman and assistant coach James Patrick coached Benson in Winnipeg. Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams knows him well, having coached with him two seasons.

On Thursday, the WHL suspended Wenatchee coach Kevin Constantine indefinitely after an independent investigation determined he violated the league’s standard of conduct policies “by making derogatory comments of a discriminatory nature.”

The Wild’s uncertain situation might concern the Sabres.

Notes: Granato said center prospect Matt Savoie, out since suffering an upper-body injury Sept. 18 in the Prospects Challenge, is expected to join the Sabres for this morning’s pregame skate. He said Savoie, 19, is still recovering but can practice to gauge his progress. … Granato said defenseman Erik Johnson, 35, will make his preseason debut Friday. The veteran, who signed a one-year contract as a free agent, has been dealing with lower-body aggravation. … Winger Brett Murray cleared waivers Thursday, allowing him to join Rochester. … Granato said the Sabres will dress most of their regulars Friday. Goalie Devon Levi will make his third preseason start.

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