Photo Credit: Erica Perreaux / Lethbridge Hurricanes
Zach Benson is a top prospect eligible for the 2023 NHL Draft.
He has spent the last three seasons, including this one with the Winnipeg ICE of the Western Hockey League. The Chilliwack, BC native was selected by Winnipeg 14th overall in 2020 bantam draft following a dominant season with the U15 Prep Yale Hockey Academy putting up 30 goals and 86 points in 30 games.
At the time of writing this, Benson is in the midst of a terrific season and is 3rd in WHL scoring amassing 23 goals, and 56 points across 34 contests. Benson was also selected to represent Canada at the Hlinka Gretzky Under 18 tournament this past summer, where he put up 2 goals and 5 points in 7 games, good for 3rd on the Canadian squad.
D.O.B – May 12, 2005
Nationality – Canadian
Draft Eligibility – 2023
Weight –150 lbs
Position – Center
Handedness – Left
Benson’s Style Of Play
Zach Benson strives when his team is on offense. In terms of forwards in this entire 2023 class, no one thinks the game with and without the puck better than Zach Benson. In my viewings of Benson, I have picked up on many offensive tendencies, all of which led to very successful offensive opportunities. The first being his play on the half-wall and in the corners without the puck. Benson is a hound for retrieving loose pucks. Think Zach Hyman. Once he has control of the puck after a strip, I’ve seen Benson time and time again feather 10ft passes through sticks and skates from below the goal line, setting up teammates for prime scoring opportunities.
With the puck, Benson is a wizard. This all starts with how he surveys the ice. He uses effective shoulder checks even when possessing the puck, that allow him to read plays ahead of his opponents. Benson is great at finding pockets of space when in the offensive zone that allow him extra time to fetch out that next pass or shot. Benson is a terrific distributor of the puck. He uses a variety of different pass types to successfully execute different plays. Like I mentioned above, he is great at dishing little 5-10ft passes from below the goal line and is extremely precise when doing so. He is also effective feathering cross seam passes across the ice, especially to the back door. He is a great match for power forwards that like to crash the net. If you have your stick on the ice at the net front, Benson will find you.
Benson’s shot has not been one of his highlight features in his draft year. Benson’s ability to find teammates cross ice after a fake shot has been a real tool for him. One thing I’ve noticed however, is that he seems to take awhile, and looks uncomfortable shooting coming out of a fake pass. I’ve looked at this closer and notice that many of the instances he has trouble getting that shot off quickly is the weight transfer has already occurred. All the energy he stores in his legs is being wasted on the fake pass, leaving him little to no strength coming through the shot release. In the grand scheme of things, I’m not overly concerned with Bensons shooting mechanics, nor his shot power. I don’t anticipate Benson to ever come in on the rush, and burry snap shots under the bar like prime Phil Kessel, but I do think once he fills out his upper half, and bulks up a bit that he will have an above average shot. The mechanics are certainly there.
One thing I love about Benson’s game defensively is how involved he is. Every loose puck battle, every zone exit, it feels like Benson is involved in a meaningful way. As a centerman, the ownness is on him to support his defenseman in deep and along the sideboards, he does a great job supporting them, and avoiding defensive zone turnovers. The key to avoiding turnovers is quick decision making. Benson keeps his head on a swivel and is constantly looking to see if or when pressure may come. When supporting his defenseman and receiving the puck, Benson makes very quick decisions with the puck. His zone exit passes are crisp, and he’s great at leading his passes. In other words, finding his wingers in stride so that they have speed coming through the neutral zone.
Off puck play is equally as important as play with the puck. From my viewings I find that Benson is actively trying to find soft spots, mainly in the neutral zone where he can make himself available to receive a pass, and transition play the other way. Although Benson is virtually always involved in the play, I find that it’s this area of his game where he can become a bit disconnected. When Benson is looking to be an outlet on the breakout, he can get caught hovering, ultimately leading to him being a bit of a passenger in transition. This is a very specific issue, and one that likely doesn’t carry too much weight. Every time I’ve noticed this from him, I’ve wound back the footage and watched what’s going on in the defensive zone. It’s typically clumsy plays from the backend, and failed breakout passes. As Benson climbs the ranks, these types of plays will only become more routine. Overall, not an aspect of his game I’m overly concerned with.
I sound like a broken record, but Benson’s head is ALWAYS on a swivel! That’s no different when he is transition. This eases so many different aspects of play in transition. It ensures he’s in open ice where he can get the puck up quickly to his wingers. When not carrying the puck Benson lets his edges go on display, in attempt to open himself up for receiving a pass up ice. When successfully orchestrated, and Benson is flying through the neutral zone in transition, good luck. He is so deceptive using shoulder fakes and uses give and go’s with teammates to get into the offensive zone, and set up quality opportunities.
I’ve tracked data from four of Benson’s games this season. In those four games, he attempted 26 zone exits, with a success rate of 69.2%. In other words, 18 of his 26 zone exits were completed, with what I deemed to be control of the puck. In those same four games, he attempted 56 zone entries (this includes special teams) in which he was successful at gaining the offensive zone on 66% of those entries.
I can’t get over how well Zach Benson uses his edges. It’s eerily similar to what I see in Mitch Marner’s game. Not only is he shifty and able to carve out space for himself with tight turns, and shifty plays to keep the puck in at the line, but he uses his edges to build up speed in all zones. He moves up ice so effortlessly, and unlike a lot of younger players, he keeps his feet moving all the time. Benson is a perfect example of leveraging speed to find open areas to counteract his slighter frame. This is great for accepting outlet passes from teammates engaged in puck battles along the boards. This opens the ice for him, and he’s benefitted from many grade A scoring chances because of it. When in on the forecheck, I love the way Benson incorporates crossovers to stay glued to his target defender. His lateral mobility is great.
From a technical standpoint, Benson’s smaller frame allows for a lower center of gravity. Why is that important? Well in hockey especially a low center of gravity increases balance and stability. This allows Benson to change direction quicker when he is lower to the ground. That, paired with his great edge work and crossovers combine for a very dominant skater. Looking at mechanics quickly, he has great bend in his knees, which discussed above, helps with lateral mobility. He also has impressive ankle flexion, which will aid in maintaining good balance while in stride.
While I don’t necessarily see Zach Benson reaching the top of the superstar bucket, (Tavares, Kane, Stamkos etc…) I do envision him being a cornerstone piece for the franchise that selects him this June.
When thinking of a player comparison, I get drawn to a few different players. From an offensive skills standpoint, I personally see a lot of similar traits to Cole Perfetti. Great vision, feet always moving, and just very technically sound with every movement. Benson has a motor on him though that never stops running. To me, very similar to watching Brayden Point roam around. There just seems to always be a certain intensity when both of them are on the ice and hunting down pucks. Both great at carving out pockets of space, and tremendous at distributing or finishing plays themselves.
Benson carries with him a massive question mark. When a team steps up to the podium in June, will they be selecting Benson as a center or a winger. That is to be determined, but here is my stance. My gut tells we winger. When his motor is running high (which is most of the time) he plays a very textbook left wing. Forechecking in deep, attempting to turn the puck over, and then looking to set up a teammate from below the goal line. When I think of Benson, this is where I see the majority of his success. Here’s what’s caused me to go back and forth a few times. His coverage in the defensive zone, and just overall defensive awareness, are not tools to sneeze at. Playing lots of center for Winnipeg this season, he has shown very good ability to fulfill all centerman duties in the defensive-zone. My conclusion. Benson will just fine playing either position and quite frankly I envision him getting looks at both whenever he is ready to crack an NHL lineup. The ultimate x-factor as to where he will stick will be his face off success. In the WHL this season, he is operating at just 38.5%. If this area does not see improvement, I think he’ll line up on the wing, while assuming many of the center duties in the defensive zone. His skills defensively are just too good to completely over look.
As it stands currently, I have Benson at #5 on my personal rankings. When the dust settles at the end of the year, I anticipate Benson remaining in the top 10, and likely somewhere in the #4 to #7 range.
January 21, 2023
stats from InStat and EliteProspects
Prospect report written by Ben Jordan. If you would like to follow Ben on Twitter, his handle is @BJordanNHL.
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