Will B.C.'s Zach Benson stick with the Buffalo Sabres full-time as an 18-year-old?

Chilliwack’s Zach Benson, the No. 13 pick in last summer’s draft, was absent with good reason for the Wenatchee Wild’s visit to the Vancouver Giants on Sunday.

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Chilliwack’s Zach Benson missed a chance to play a WHL game just a short jaunt down the highway from his home but he had a good excuse.

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The Wenatchee Wild went without Benson, 18, for Sunday’s visit to the Langley Events Centre to face the Vancouver Giants because he’s still with the Buffalo Sabres. Vancouver won the contest 6-2, led by two goals each from Kyren Gronick and Tyler Thorpe.

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Benson, in fact, has been so good so far with the Sabres that he may not be back with Wenatchee any time soon. There are suggestions that the small, skilled winger will start the NHL regular season with Buffalo and get a chance to stick there all season.

For example, Mike Harrington’s column in The Buffalo News on Monday had the headline: Zach Benson deserves his spot, but how do Sabres answer other camp questions? 

Benson, who’s a Chilliwack Minor Hockey Association alum and played spring hockey on powerhouse Vancouver Vipers’ teams that included the likes of Connor Bedard, was the No. 13 pick in this summer’s NHL Draft. That’s two selections after the Vancouver Canucks took Swedish defenceman Tom Willander, who’s starting his freshman season with Boston University. 

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Benson had 36 goals and 98 points in 60 regular-season games last season with the Winnipeg Ice, the team that was sold and relocated to Wenatchee, Wash., in the off-season. 

The Sabres have been playing Benson on a line with Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner, who were Buffalo’s top two scorers last season. Benson has two goals and four points in four exhibition games thus far.

Harrington wrote Monday: “At 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, Benson has to deal with the physical play of the NHL but the 18-year-old has proven to be slippery in the offensive zone. He has a keen hockey IQ to seek out open spaces and is constantly getting to those spots ahead of the defence.”

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The Sabres begin the regular season on Oct. 12, hosting the New York Rangers. Assuming Benson’s still there on opening night, he can play in nine regular-season games before the first year of his three-year, entry level contract is fully activated. The Sabres can still send him back to Wenatchee after his 10th game, but his contract remains in play. 

Giants fans might recall the Tampa Bay Lightning sending a 19-year-old James Wright back to the junior club after 48 NHL games in 2009-10.

The Sabres have two more pre-season opportunities for Benson to show his talents, with a Wednesday matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets and then a Friday game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

Benson told reporters recently: “Your dream and goal is to play in the NHL. I know my job right now is just to keep pushing, keep playing my best. That’s kind of my thing, just keep getting better.”

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The Giants, meanwhile, are still awaiting word on a possible return by forward Samuel Honzek, who’s in the camp of the Calgary Flames, the team that took him three spots after Benson at No. 16 this summer.

Calgary had three pre-season games left as of Monday morning: Monday versus the Winnipeg Jets, Wednesday vs. the Edmonton Oilers and Friday against the Canucks.

The Giants are at the Portland Winterhawks on Saturday, and then don’t play again until the Swift Current Broncos come to the LEC on Oct. 13. 

“We’re hoping it’s pretty soon. Hopefully by next week sometime,” Giants coach Manny Viveiros said when asked about getting Honzek back.

Vancouver (2-1-0-0) was sharper moving the puck and played more connected — to borrow a Viveiros’ phrase — than they did in a 5-1 road loss to the Kamloops Blazers on Friday.

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Wenatchee (1-3-1-0) was in the midst of its third game in as many nights, and were missing centres Matthew Savoie (Buffalo, 2022 first-rounder); and Conor Geekie (Arizona, 2022 first-rounder) to NHL camps, along with Benson.

“We got a lot of contributions on offence. We played the right way. That’s the way we can play every night. On Friday, we didn’t do that,” said Vancouver centre Jaden Lipinski. 

Honzek, 18, would help in various facets. He played in all situations last year for the Giants. He’s a potential trigger man on the power play. He wins battles for pucks along the boards and in the corner, using his 6-foot-4, 195 pound frame to his advantage.

He had 23 goals and 56 points in 43 regular-season games a season ago for the Giants. While playing for Slovakia at the World Juniors, he had the back of his leg stepped on by an opponent and wound up missing 20 games for Vancouver.

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“Hopefully we don’t see him because he’s playing for the Flames. If we do get him, we’ll be excited,” said Lipinski, a fourth-round pick of Calgary this summer who was just reassigned to the Giants in time for the Kamloops’ game. 

SEwen@postmedia.com

x.com/@SteveEwen

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