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.
While his playmaking is his greatest offensive tool, his shot shouldn’t be undersold. His shooting stance can be quite upright and stiff, but his release is quick and accurate. Mechanical refinement will only make it more threatening, still.
These upright mechanics are a staple of his skating. Benson does not bend his knees very much in his stride which severely limits his explosiveness and acceleration. His top speed is quite decent, but especially for a player of his stature, the quickness and acceleration need to improve. His edgework provides him with a very solid foundation to build his skating on, however, and the Winnipeg Ice are a good organization that should give Benson all the resources he needs to address this weakness.
Defensively, Benson uses his intelligence, edgework, and active stick to break up play and be a net positive in his own zone. There are certainly flashes of passive defensive sequences, but he generally supports his defenders by cutting off passing lanes and hounding the puck carrier. In multiple-variable defensive scenarios, Benson can puck-watch for just long enough for his man to get through on goal, but with his frequent scanning habits, this should iron itself out rather quickly.
Another thing that Benson will need to work on this year is to consistently use his teammates, especially in transition. He has the abundant skill to create zone entries all on his own, but he also commits unforced errors with this strategy. If he had Matthew Barzal’s skating, this wouldn’t even be an issue, because his hands are high end and he has the intelligence and deception to evade defenders, but his feet limit him in this regard and until they catch up to his mental speed, he will need to slow down just a touch and make more consistent use of the support his team gives him.
The positive in this is that Benson is unafraid of trying things; he uses his creativity along with his other aforementioned strengths consistently to push the pace and drive offence.
I believe that Zach Benson could be a top-five talent in this stacked draft class, because his foundation of high-end tools (edgework, passing, handling), habits (scanning, positioning), and his elite hockey sense and awareness give him an extremely high ceiling. He does need to refine his skating mechanics, his shooting stance, his defensive habits, and most importantly, more regularly demonstrate an ability to take over a game on his own in order to hold on to a top-five spot in this class, but I believe he will be able to do so.