Sabres takeaways: In win over Blackhawks, Zach Benson keeps pushing to stick around

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Zach Benson might want to start looking for permanent housing in Buffalo.

The 18-year-old played his eighth game of the season on Sunday when the Sabres beat the Blackhawks 3-2. He gets one more game before the Sabres must either return him to junior or keep him in Buffalo and burn a year of his entry-level contract.

Against the Blackhawks, Benson made a heck of a case to stay in the NHL. From the beginning of training camp, Sabres coach Don Granato has talked about the details of Benson’s game. On Friday, he mentioned that Benson has more NHL habits than he does major junior habits and that you often need to rewind to pick up on all of the little things Benson does to impact a game.

That was the case in the first period of the Sabres’ win on Sunday night. What will show up on the stat sheet is Benson’s assist on Rasmus Dahlin’s goal to put Buffalo up 1-0. Benson collected a pass on the rush and turned his body back toward his trailing teammates, buying time and keeping the puck away from two Chicago skaters. He found Dahlin, who picked his spot and got the goal.

But as Granato mentioned, sometimes you need to rewind to see everything Benson does. That shift started with Benson winning a puck battle to start a Sabres possession in the offensive zone. At the start of that possession, he got a point-blank chance in front and was stopped by Blackhawks goalie Petr Mrázek. He then collected a turnover as the Blackhawks were trying to break the puck out and had another prime scoring chance but tried a drop pass that didn’t work. It was then his stickwork on the backcheck that made Chicago’s breakout attempt a clunky one and helped the Sabres turn the play back the other way for the goal.

When the Sabres drafted Benson, general manager Kevyn Adams mentioned how every scout who had been to a Winnipeg Ice game over the last two seasons left the game thinking Benson was the best player on the ice. That included the Sabres’ No. 9 pick in the 2022 draft and Benson’s Ice teammate, Matt Savoie, who was returned to junior last week. Playing in the WHL, Benson was often on the ice with Connor Bedard, the Blackhawks’ No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 draft.

Bedard has been sensational to start his rookie season with 15 points in 16 games. On Sunday, Benson made a similar impact on the game as the one Bedard did. Bedard had more time on ice, but both had an assist. When Benson was on the ice at five-on-five, the Sabres had a 72-percent expected goal share to go along with a 7-3 advantage in scoring chances and a 3-1 advantage in high-danger chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.

In the second period with the game tied at one, Benson crashed in on the forecheck and drew a tripping penalty. The Sabres scored on the ensuing power play. Benson wasn’t on the ice for the power play, but his impact on the game contributed to Buffalo’s first two goals. Still, though, Benson got only three shifts in the third period and only one after the Sabres took a 3-2 lead.

Before the Sabres left for this three-game road trip, Granato said these three games would be big in regards to the final decision on whether to send Benson back to junior. If that’s the case, Benson’s passing the test. He has an assist in both games and has been on the ice for 12 five-on-five scoring chances for and only six scoring chances against.

That doesn’t necessarily make this an easy decision for the Sabres. But forward depth has been a problem for this team early in the season. The Sabres aren’t scoring at the same rate they did a season ago and they’re now without Tage Thompson for the next month. Granato has struggled to put together more than two solid scoring lines. On Sunday, he again opted to go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen, in part to ease Henri Jokiharju back into the lineup after he missed two games with an illness.

But even the way Granato has handled ice time with 12 forwards shows the team’s depth in that area is lacking. Asking an 18-year-old to be a solution to that isn’t a perfect answer, but Benson has been one of the team’s best forwards in each of the last two games since returning from injury. In eight games, he now has four assists. When the Sabres kept Benson around after training camp, Granato said it was because they believed he could help them win hockey games. He did that on Sunday night with another big deadline looming.

“I would suspect it’s not going to be an easy decision,” Granato said Friday.

Quicks hits

1. Dahlin was again Buffalo’s most valuable player on Sunday. He had a goal and two assists and played just over 29 minutes. He added three hits and tied for the team lead with five shot attempts. He’s taken his offensive game to another level since Thompson left the lineup.

“I just told myself to go out there and don’t think and just play off my instincts and just compete,” Dahlin told reporters after the game. “That’s all I can do right now.”

2. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen was solid in stopping 24 of the 26 shots he faced. Both goals against came on high-danger chances, according to Natural Stat Trick. Luukkonen was particularly good in the closing moments of the game when the Blackhawks put on a strong push with the extra attacker. Luukkonen got some help from the post when a Blackhawks shot hit the iron in the final second of the game. But this was the type of controlled game from Luukkonen that could earn him another start on Wednesday.

3. Erik Johnson has brought plenty to the Sabres with his leadership. But on Sunday, his impact showed up on the stat sheet. Johnson scored the game-winning goal midway through the third period by pinching in at the blue line, crashing down the boards and snapping a shot while cutting toward the net near the goal line.

(Photo: Melissa Tamez / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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