Zach Benson took the ice for the Buffalo Sabres’ morning skate at KeyBank Center on Nov. 24 not knowing what his future would hold. 

The 18-year-old had already defied the odds after making Buffalo’s 23-man roster following a productive training camp, which saw Benson tally seven points (4+3) in six preseason contests. 

He followed that up with his first NHL points on Oct. 14 against the New York Islanders, tallying two assists in just the second regular-season game of his career before dealing with a lower-body injury in the ensuing weeks. Despite the injury, Benson was determined to earn his spot in Buffalo. 

Benson recorded a point in three consecutive games in his return from injury, including his highlight-reel first NHL goal on Nov. 23 in Washington. He scored on a between-the-legs shot to boost his point total to five points (1+4) in nine games, the maximum number allowed before counting toward his entry-level contract.

So, when Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams met Benson on the bench after the team’s morning skate that late November morning, Adams’ decision on Benson’s future was made easier.  

“He kind of let me know I’ll be playing my 10th game,” Benson said. 

Adams made the decision to keep Benson with the NHL club on the first year of his deal rather than assign him to the Western Hockey League, where he recorded 98 points (36+62) in 60 games for the Winnipeg Ice the year prior. 

Five months later, Benson stood in the Sabres’ locker room and reflected on his rookie season in the NHL. 

“I mean, it was a crazy year for me. You know, coming to camp, not too sure what’s gonna go on,” he said. “It was definitely a hectic year and one I'll never forget. It was pretty awesome to play with this group of guys. It was a dream come true to play my first year in the NHL."

Zach Benson addresses the media

Benson had set a goal of making the team’s opening night roster prior to the start of training camp. The 13th-overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft did not expect what would come next but earned his spot in the lineup by playing a gritty, two-way game, becoming the second-youngest Sabres player to appear in a regular season game behind only Pierre Turgeon. 

"He’s fearless, man,” forward Jordan Greenway said. “I remember my first year, I was so nervous. You know, he's a small kid, he's 18 years old. He doesn't back down. He’ll go into the dirty areas. And on top of that, he's got a skill set that's great. He can score. He can do a lot of good things. So, the sky is the limit for him.” 

Benson saw time on the ice alongside Greenway as well as Tage Thompson, Dylan Cozens, JJ Peterka, Jack Quinn, Peyton Krebs, and Alex Tuch throughout his rookie campaign. 

He ended the season having posted eight multi-point performances, including his first career three-point night on March 12, when he recorded a goal and two assists in the first period of Buffalo’s 7-3 win over Detroit. 

Benson added a pair of goals against the Islanders in the following game to become the third Sabres player to record a multi-goal game at age 18 or younger, joining elite company in Phil Housley and Turgeon.

“He had a great year,” Thompson said. “I think to step in at 18 and do what he did is very impressive. It says a lot. … Someone who doesn’t lack confidence and didn’t shy away from the challenge of playing against grown men every single night. I like the way he plays, and he’s got a bit of an edge to his game, which I think is great and something that I think makes him good.”

We mic'd up the rookie forward!

The Chilliwack, British Columbia native posted 30 points (11+19) in 71 games in his first NHL season, bolstered by seven points (2+5) in his last seven contests to finish ninth among rookie forwards in points, ahead of fellow 2023 first-round picks Leo Carlsson (second overall) and Adam Fantilli (third overall).

Benson attributed his spike in production in the latter half of the season to adjusting to the pace of the league while alternate captain Rasmus Dahlin, who welcomed Benson into his home midseason, credited the way the young forward handles himself each day.

“He's a professional,” Dahlin said. “He's so competitive with everything he does. The way he handles himself on a day-to-day basis, it's pretty cool to see. … His ceiling is very, very high, and I'm excited for his future.”

Benson learned how to be a pro by watching the Sabres’ All-Star defenseman’s daily habits over the course of the season. He plans to take what he’s learned from Dahlin about taking care of his body to have a productive summer.

"My main focus this offseason is to get stronger,” Benson said. “I felt pretty good in battles, but I want to win more.”

In the meantime, his teammates like Krebs, who knew Benson back from their junior hockey days together with the Ice, will be looking forward to seeing what the 18-year-old will do next.

“Even from the start of the year to now, as he's grown as a person, what he's learned, I think he's going to take that,” Krebs said. “I'm excited to see what he’s going to bring next year.”