The 2023 NHL draft class is a loaded one. From the top with Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli, it is arguably one of the best classes in recent memory. Add to the fact that there are some intriguing names throughout the projected first round, and it’s clear this draft is also deep. However, a name that does not get as much love as the other top guys is Zach Benson. What makes Benson basically a unanimous top-10 prospect?
Zach Benson Scouting Report
Benson was born May 12th, 2005, in Langley, British Columbia. He stands at 5’10” and 159 pounds and plays both center and wing for the Winnipeg Ice in the WHL. So far this season, Benson has scored 23 goals and 35 assists for 58 points in 35 games. That puts him on pace for 111 points in 67 games. Last year, he scored 25 goals and 38 assists for 63 points in 58 games.
With those two seasons, Benson has been ranked as high as fourth by Smaht Scouting. Other rankings place him fifth (DobberProspects), sixth (Recruit Scouting, SportsNet, FCHockey, EliteProspects), seventh (Bob McKenzie), ninth (The Hockey News, Craig Button) and 10th (McKeen’s Hockey). On this writer’s unreleased rankings, Benson ranks third.
Zach Benson Deep Dive
Some prospects are super flashy and make jaw-dropping plays several times throughout the season. That includes a player like Kent Johnson. Then there are other guys who play a full two-way game, doing a lot of the little things right. Someone like Anton Lundell comes to mind. Then there are those who have a blend of both, like Matthew Beniers. Benson is somewhere between Beniers and Lundell, as he isn’t as detailed as Beniers, but has more offensive flair than Lundell. Let’s get into it.
Zach Benson’s Skating
Benson is easily one of the best skaters in this class, at least in this writer’s opinion. His edges are excellent, and he does a fantastic job using them to build up speed through crossovers. He moves so effortlessly, especially when accelerating up ice. He has great knee and ankle bend, and being a little smaller allows him to have a lower center of gravity. Adding those great technical abilities to his strong edges and acceleration, plus the low center of gravity, he can skate through a tight lane in the neutral zone to gain the offensive zone.
Benson utilizes his skating all over the ice. When forechecking, he flies in after the opposing defender. As a matter of fact, he had 13 forced turnovers in three tracked games. Having tracked Tampa Bay Lightning games this season, the most forced turnovers in a single game belonged to Pat Maroon and Vladislav Namestnikov, with five. Benson averaged 4.3 forced turnovers per game, a very strong rate. It comes down to his skating, as he attacks defenders quickly and forces them into mistakes. His top-end speed is elite at the junior level, his smooth strides and edges make it look effortless, and he uses it very well.
Benson’s offensive game is excellent, and that is shown in his production thus far in the WHL. Averaging 1.7 points per game is no easy feat. His best asset is his brain. His off-puck abilities allow him to find space in the offensive zone. Defenders lose him in coverage, as he is able to slip in behind the defence and get in tight to the net with consistency. That’s allowed him to score as many goals as he has over the last two seasons.
On top of that, however, he has a good shot and strong playmaking abilities. He pushes pace when necessary and can hit teammates in high-danger areas. However, he also slows things down and can make safe, smart plays to extend offensive zone possession. Benson does not flash very often, and his shooting isn’t anything to write home about. But he knows how to find open space with consistency, attacks the high-danger areas, and uses his skating to generate chances off the rush.
In the three tracked games, at even-strength, Benson fired 12 shots total, with eight hitting the target. Looking deeper at his shooting stats, half of his shots were taken from high danger, and he hit the net on 67% of those chances (four). He scored two goals, both at high danger as well. Meanwhile, on the power play, Benson shot the puck six times, but only hit the net twice. He had two shots at high danger in those situations, and both of them hit the net. On the penalty kill, he scored a goal at high danger as well, as he continues to be a threat with his skating, smarts, and forechecking prowess.
As for his passing, again at even strength over the course of three games, Benson attempted 36 passes and completed 75% of them. 22.2% of Benson’s passes were aimed at high danger, which may seem like a low mark. However, it is the second-highest mark of the players that have been tracked this season. Additionally, on those high-danger passes, he completed 75% of them. That shows his efficiency in hitting on those passes when he elects to push the pace. On the powerplay, he attempted 39 passes, completing 92.3% of them. Most of those passes were aimed at low-danger (59%). However, when he did attempt a high-danger pass (12.8%), he completed every single one of them. Again, he showed his efficiency in aiming at high danger.
What The Numbers Tell Us
Looking at these numbers, it’s clear what Benson brings to the table. His high IQ is not a measurable stat that can be put into numbers or tracked. However, one can glean from his efficiency at high danger both as a shooter and passer, at both even-strength and the power play, that he can make splash plays. It may not happen often, and it doesn’t have to. But when Benson turns up the heat, he can make teams pay. But more importantly, it is clear he does not make many mistakes. Even when he does, he has the smarts to get the puck right back, using the IQ that has been talked about plenty already.
Zach Benson’s Transitional Abilities
Perhaps what sets Benson truly apart is just how good he is moving the puck up the ice. Again, it falls onto his skating and smarts. The low center of gravity, speed, acceleration and vision allows him to find the right path, and be able to effectively take it. That is evident in his numbers. At even strength, Benson had 19 zone exit attempts and completed 14 with control (73.7%). When it comes to entering the offensive zone, he attempted 48 entries and was successful on 64.6% of them. On the power play, Benson attempted 11 entries, completing 10 of them with control (90.9%) and was four for five on the penalty kill. Overall, he generated eight rush chances at all strengths.
Diving Deeper Into The Transitional Numbers
Benson is a fantastic transitional player. The way he carries himself up the ice shows poise and confidence that could be argued as NHL-ready. He does not dazzle with crazy stickhandling, or highlight-reel plays to gain the offensive zone. Benson does it by exploiting space in front of him when given, and when he does not have a lot of space, he still finds enough room to make plays.
Defensive Zone Play
Benson is a strong defensive presence at the junior level. Tracking his defensive zone stats, he had 28 total touches and only turned the puck over twice. That said, he is safe and smart with the puck in his own end. He supports the defence down low and reads the play very well in front of him. Benson possesses an active stick, and with his short-area quickness, can pressure opponents effectively and force misfired or forced passes that lead to his team taking over.
The issues in his game ultimately come down to one fairly important thing and one area that can be improved with good coaching. To start with the easy fix, there are some moments where he cheats up the ice a little too quickly. It does not happen too often, but it still happens from time to time. Meanwhile, his small stature and light weight put him at a disadvantage. He does not win many puck battles against bigger competition and can be knocked off the puck a little too easily. With that said, he likely plays on the wing at the next level, thus it may not be of the utmost importance. But he does need to bulk up considerably, as he could be eaten alive by bigger and stronger NHL competition.
Zach Benson’s Potential
Watching Zach Benson play, he has an eerie resemblance to a top player at the NHL level. Before the comparison, let’s clarify that this does not mean he will be as good or better than this player. It means he has a very similar style to this player. It comes down to his offensive abilities, where he plays smart more than anything, but can also turn up the dials to make magic happen. His transitional play is fantastic and is also comparable to this NHL comp. Meanwhile, his defensive play may not be a big part of his game at a higher level, but he won’t be a liability there either, barring something unforeseen.
The NHL comparison this writer has for Zach Benson is Brayden Point of the Lightning. They have very similar skating tendencies and styles. When carrying the puck up ice to transition, they look identical. Point has more skill in terms of stickhandling, and as of right now is a better skater, but Benson attacks through the neutral zone very similarly. Offensively and defensively, neither turns the puck over much and both are mostly smart. But both can turn up the heat and pressure the opposition.
Ultimately, Benson has the potential to become an elite NHL player down the line, but his well-balanced play makes him a safer bet than most.