Red Wings Draft Targets: Zach Benson

There are many ways for players to stand out in the game of hockey. You can stand out by being the fastest player on the ice. You can stand out by terrorizing your opponent with unrelenting physical play. The best players in the world, however, stand out because there is something magnetic about their game. They always have the puck, they seem to be in on everything offensively, and they even contribute their fair share on the defensive side of things. You just can’t help but to notice them.

Related: Red Wings 2023 Draft Coverage

Frankly, the Detroit Red Wings need more players like that in their system, especially on the offensive side of the puck. Players like Marco Kasper and Carter Mazur have teased their capabilities as future game-breakers in Detroit, but that magnetic quality is hard to find once you look deeper into the Red Wings’ prospect pool. With two first round picks in the upcoming draft, they should be well positioned to add a few more magnetic players to their pool of future talent.

2023 NHL Draft Detroit Red Wings Targets
2023 NHL Draft Detroit Red Wings Targets (The Hockey Writers)

One player that certainly has that magnetic quality is winger Zach Benson. Over his last two seasons with the Winnipeg ICE of the Western Hockey League (WHL), he had 61 goals and and 161 points in 118 games. He also had 16 goals and 40 points through 30 playoff games, including last season when he led his team in points as a 17-year-old. He’s not the biggest guy in the draft (5-foot-10), but he makes up for it by being noticeable almost every time he’s on the ice.

Benson’s Toolkit

Benson is the type of player I like to call a “jitterbug” because he’s always moving and he elevates the tempo of the game because of it. He’s a high-energy player that engages in puck battles along the boards, backchecks with fierce competitiveness, and creates opportunities (and finishes them) at top speed. He’s a player that I could see wearing a letter one day based solely on how well he competes and how willing he is to do the dirty work, as well as how smart he is in any given circumstance.

Benson’s hockey IQ is one of his greatest assets. He is constantly aware of where his teammates are on the ice, and he instinctively makes good reads with and without the puck. He finds open spaces and either takes the puck there himself or finds one of his teammates with a good, clean pass. While his shot does not stand out among the crowd of gifted offensive players in this year’s draft, his on-ice intelligence is what enables him to create lethal opportunities for himself and his teammates.

Related: 2023 NHL Draft Guide

Benson is a fun player to watch because, while he is capable of making the occasional play that makes your jaw drop, he mostly finds success by making simple, savvy plays to create time and space. He is an effective head-faker, and he can stop on a dime to shake off an opposing defender. Pavel Datsyuk was special because he did things that few players in the world would even think of trying; Benson projects to be something special because of how effective he is at making everyday plays. He’s a player that makes a cross-ice saucer pass look easy.

With teammates like 2022 first round picks Matthew Savoie and Conor Geekie, among others, Benson has been able to play with high-quality players, and that has certainly elevated his game and production. However, he is just as responsible for their success over the past two seasons. It is a talent to play with talent, and Benson’s well-rounded game would thrive in almost any role and any level of talent. With his compete level and willingness to forecheck, I can see him becoming an absolute menace on the ice, cut from the same cloth as Brad Marchand. But even if his offense doesn’t quite hit Marchand levels in the NHL, I still see him becoming an effective winger that can play up and down the lineup and contribute on both special teams units.

What Benson Still Has to Work On

Is it oversimplifying things to just say “get bigger”?

Benson is small and slight at 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, and there are definitely situations where that fact is evident. He does get muscled off the puck sometimes, and bigger players can throw him aside if he isn’t braced for impact. There are too many effective, undersized players in the NHL for this to be a huge problem (Marchand, for example, is only 15 pounds heavier than Benson) but Benson will surely want to add muscle mass as he exits his teenage years.

Benson is also the typical playmaker that makes mistakes while trying to create. He isn’t immune to turnovers, and he’ll occasionally throw blind passes directly into an opposing player’s skates. He is effective at making simple plays, so I don’t worry about him needing to simplify his game at all. With players that think the game at a high level, you have to accept that sometimes they are going to cough the puck up while trying to make a play.

Zach Benson Winnipeg ICE
Zach Benson, Winnipeg ICE (Bob Frid/CHL)

Lastly, since Benson does not possess an elite-level shot, it’s fair to wonder how much of a goal-scorer he’ll be at the next level. I think he has 30-goal potential at the NHL level, but I would not be surprised if there’s a bit of a learning curve for him as he adjusts the to pace of the pro level as well as the overall skill level. I think he will still find ways to contribute, and a wise team will let him develop at his own pace before thrusting him into a scoring role he isn’t ready for.

NHL Readiness

Benson has been so effective in the WHL over the last two seasons that I wonder if another season at that level is necessary. However, I’m also not so sure that he’s ready to face NHL competition quite yet. Due to the agreement between the Canadian Hockey League and the NHL, Benson’s only options next season are the WHL or the NHL, and that’s a shame because I’d be interested to see how he’d fare in the American Hockey League next season.

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Regardless, Benson is probably a year out from pushing for an NHL job. He needs another year to physically mature, and another year chewing up WHL defenders wouldn’t be the worst thing for him. I think he has a few NHL-level qualities in his game already, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a long look in training camp.

Benson’s Fit with the Red Wings

It is interesting to think about Benson’s fit with the Red Wings, in part, because of the collection of talent they have already. After trading away Tyler Bertuzzi at this year’s trade deadline, there’s a need in Detroit for a high-energy player that can do a little bit of everything and can produce on the top line, potentially alongside Dylan Larkin and Lucas Raymond. Benson could certainly be that player, but that’s not his only potential fit in the Red Wings’ lineup.

If Benson reaches his max potential, he’ll be an engine that is capable of carrying his own line through his energy and hockey sense. A line of Benson, Kasper and Mazur would feature three players with great hockey sense and a willingness to be a pain in the opponents’ butts. Benson’s compete level and contributions in the defensive end would surely endear him to head coach Derek Lalonde as well. While Benson does not fit the mold of general manager Steve Yzerman’s usual top picks (Raymond is Yzerman’s smallest top pick at 5-foot-11), his demeanor and commitment on the ice fits right in with what Yzerman is trying to build in Detroit.

Best Player Available

Recent draft rankings have Benson ranked anywhere from fifth overall all the way down to 17th overall. It’s clear he’s one of the top forwards in this year’s draft, and it likely comes down to how worried you are about his lack of size that determines whether or not you think he’s worth a top-10 pick. I don’t believe he will fall out of the top 15 when the picks are made, but if he’s available when the Red Wings make their second pick at 17th overall, they shouldn’t think twice about calling his name from the draft stage.

The real debate here is if the Red Wings should take Benson with the ninth pick, assuming he is available. Personally, I’m not scared of players that lack size, especially when they play with the heart of a player that stands at 6-foot-3. His talent level is right up there with the best players outside of the top-5, and I think “Benson Watch” begins at sixth overall to be honest. He should be one of the Red Wings’ top choices at ninth overall because of his potential as a legitimate difference-maker in all areas of the game.

What Others Are Saying

“Benson is an elite passer with incredible vision. He can seamlessly thread the needle with his crisp 10-foot passes. He can see plays three to four steps before they happen. He is one of the smartest players in this draft class. He uses that intelligence on both sides of the puck. He creates chances that lead to scoring opportunities.” – Caleb Kerney, The Hockey Writers

“I can’t get over how well Zach Benson uses his edges. It’s eerily similar to what I see in Mitch Marner’s game. Not only is he shifty and able to carve out space for himself with tight turns, and shifty plays to keep the puck in at the line, but he uses his edges to build up speed in all zones. He moves up ice so effortlessly, and unlike a lot of younger players, he keeps his feet moving all the time. Benson is a perfect example of leveraging speed to find open areas to counteract his slighter frame.” – Ben Jordan, Smaht Scouting

“His frame, combined with a lack of separation speed, is a concern, though, for his NHL projection even though he’s got good quickness in tight. There is a fair amount of risk on his projection, but his strong compete and tremendous skill plus track record of scoring, makes you think there is still a very good chance he can become a quality top-six wing in the NHL.” – Corey Pronman, The Athletic (from “2023 NHL Draft top prospects: Bedard No. 1, Smith rises in Pronman’s May ranking”, The Athletic, May 3, 2023)