The 2023 draft class has been hyped up for being stacked for quite a while now. One WHL forward is the crown jewel of this strong class — Connor Bedard is the most electrifying prospect since Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid. He is joined by Russian sniper Matvei Michkov and 6’3” power forward centerman Adam Fantilli at the very top of the early leaderboard.
Other names that you will be hearing a lot of in the next year, and beyond, include Leo Carlsson, Dalibor Dvorsky, Cameron Allen, Matthew Wood, Eduard Šalé, and two more WHLers: Brayden Yager and Andrew Cristall, who will almost certainly receive profiles in this monthly series. But the player I want to highlight here is a highly intelligent forward who drives terrific offensive results: Zach Benson.
Benson put up 25 goals and 63 points in 58 games on a dominant Winnipeg Ice team last year, and, if you ask me, he outplayed his teammates who went 9th and 11th overall respectively in the 2022 draft: Matthew Savoie and Conor Geekie. Benson may be undersized at 5’10” and 150 lbs, but his style of play based on intelligent off-puck movements, constant scanning, excellent edgework, and playing through pressure makes his NHL projection a very clear one to me, and I have few concerns with his size.
His intelligence is his most outstanding quality, despite it being the infancy of the new scouting season, I’m fairly confident in claiming that Benson has a top-five hockey sense in this class. He gathers information with great frequency and consistency with excellent scanning habits, he processes this information at lightning speed, and he executes on the best option he finds with great precision, whether it be on or off-puck, offensively or defensively.
Benson may just shine brightest when roaming the offensive zone off the puck, searching for openings and biding his time to strike, but don’t think for a second that he isn’t dynamic and lethal with the puck on his stick, he is. Benson’s hands and edges work at the same speed as his mind, which makes him an extremely slippery, adaptable, and dangerous puck carrier. He’s also very composed with the puck on his stick and he’s constantly scanning for passing and skating lanes to plan his next move, even when he’s under pressure.
In transition, he uses his lane-finding ability, intelligence, and puck skills to enter the zone and then uses a refined delay game to cut open defences, regularly hitting a trailing teammate with a dart of a cross-seam pass. When he hangs on to the puck, he likes to cut to the slot and either shoot from there or pass to a teammate that becomes open due to the attention Benson attracts by attacking a high-danger area.