Zach Benson ready to use rookie lessons to help Sabres replace Jack Quinn


Staff member

Zach Benson understood the assignment.

The Buffalo Sabres rookie winger was told by head coach Don Granato to watch from the press box as his teammates faced the Kings in Los Angeles on Jan. 24.

Benson wasn’t there to lounge and eat popcorn. Every moment of the Sabres’ 5-3 win was an opportunity for the 18-year-old to see how he can make a greater impact on the ice. He learned from the dynamic plays and mistakes made by both teams.

The healthy scratch was used to teach Benson, not punish him. Granato noticed that the 13th pick in the 2023 NHL draft had hit the proverbial rookie wall. Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka used the occasional game off last season to learn valuable lessons that helped them become invaluable forwards.

The Sabres need the same to happen with Benson this season. General manager Kevyn Adams opted not to recall a top prospect or an experienced American Hockey League forward from Rochester in response to losing Quinn for approximately eight weeks. Instead, Adams and Granato are planning to have Benson try to fill the void in Buffalo’s top six.

“If there is pressure, it’s good pressure to have,” Benson said following practice Monday. “Quinner’s obviously a hard guy to fill in for. It can’t just be one guy. It has to be multiple guys in our group.”

The Sabres’ success after the All-Star break won’t be determined by how quickly Benson emerges as a scoring threat. They must receive more offense from several forwards, most notably Tage Thompson, Dylan Cozens, Alex Tuch and Jeff Skinner. The defense must collectively replace Mattias Samuelsson, who will have season-ending surgery, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen must continue to perform like a No. 1 goalie.

But Quinn’s impact in 17 games before his latest injury was a reminder that Buffalo missed him dearly during the first two months of the season. He’s a reliable two-way winger who can score goals, contribute on special teams and make plays to set up his linemates. Granato cited Benson’s intelligence, grit and ability to extend possession while explaining why the Sabres are confident that the recent first-round pick is ready to take a leap.

Benson’s impressive debut season hasn’t shown up on the scoresheet, though. He has four goals with 14 points in 38 games. The Sabres need Benson to get back to playing the way he did before the holiday break, when he was consistently around the net in the offensive zone.

According to Natural Stat Trick, Benson’s shot quality at 5-on-5 and individual scoring chances ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, on the Sabres from Oct. 12 through Dec. 21. Across the Sabres’ past 14 games, Benson is 13th and ninth in the same categories. He has zero goals and one assist during that span, which eventually led to his healthy scratch in Los Angeles.

“His play without the puck is exceptional,” said Granato. “His teammates get it back faster and quicker and easier. He gets pucks out of the zone; he gets pucks to where they need to be. He can extend possession. If you send it to him and there’s a defender on him and he’s got no support, he can buy one second, two seconds, three seconds. … Benny has that type of intuition. He has a very intuitive sense of how to manipulate situations. The scoring is going to come, there’s no question.”

Benson is expected to be on a line with Peterka and Cozens when the Sabres (22-23-4) host the Dallas Stars (30-13-6) in KeyBank Center on Tuesday night. Buffalo will miss Quinn’s shot and ability to get to the net, but Benson has the speed to help Cozens and Peterka create offense in transition. Benson also is strong on the puck and savvy along the wall, attributes that should create space for those talented scorers to get shots on net.

The Sabres were devastated when Quinn was injured in their 5-2 win over the San Jose Sharks before the bye week and All-Star break. Everyone in Buffalo’s lineup knew how Quinn had to re-learn how to skate while recovering from a ruptured Achilles. Benson skated 15:28 that afternoon, only a few days after he was a healthy scratch in Los Angeles. No one is downplaying the loss of Quinn. He’s beloved by teammates and showed, albeit in only six weeks, that he’s developing into a reliable goal scorer. However, there’s also confidence that Benson is ready to learn from triumphs and tumults of the first half.

“He’s so smart, and he’s always in the right spots,” Cozens said of Benson. “He’s a really good playmaker. I know he’s going to look to find me and JJ a lot. He’s good in battles, he’s good along the walls, he’s good at getting pucks back. I’m excited to play with him. He’s really a great player.”


Sabres winger Zemgus Girgensons and defenseman Erik Johnson were cleared to return from their respective injuries in time for the game Tuesday night.
Girgensons missed only one game because of an upper-body injury and should help the Sabres’ penalty kill, which is 22-for-24 over the last eight games and must replace Quinn. Girgensons, a pending unrestricted free agent, has four goals in 31 games this season.

Johnson missed four games with an upper-body injury that occurred on a hit from behind by Blackhawks forward Philipp Kurashev. Johnson is averaging a career-low 14:11 of ice time across 41 games during his first season in Buffalo.

Hot hand​

Luukkonen is expected to make his ninth start in the Sabres’ past 10 games, a clear signal that the former top prospect has emerged as the team’s No. 1 goalie. His .940 save percentage in nine starts since Dec. 30 ranks eighth in the NHL during that span. He’s also posted a 1.57 goals-against average, which is lower than everyone except Edmonton’s Stuart Skinner, and a 6-3 record. Luukkonen’s .942 save percentage at 5-on-5 is tied with Skinner for the second-best mark, trailing only Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets.

Devon Levi is expected to remain with the Rochester Americans unless an injury or poor performance strikes the Sabres’ goaltending depth chart. The Amerks are off until Friday, when they host the Syracuse Crunch.