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Benson's game, hair flowed during dynamic draft season

Zach Benson Winnipeg Ice Zach Benson - The Canadian Press

Zach Benson was happy with the way he looked on and off the ice this season. 

"Before the year started, I think it was in the pre-season, I just kind of came up with the mindset that I was going with the mullet to see how it would treat me," the Winnipeg Ice winger said. "I had a pretty good start to the year, so I thought from then on I would keep it. And then a few of my teammates jumped on the mullet train for a bit. It was cool to see. My younger brother has a mullet now."

Benson rode the mullet train to 98 points in 60 games. Among draft-eligible players in the Canadian Hockey League, only Connor Bedard produced more. 

As he meets with teams for interviews this week in Buffalo at the NHL Scouting Combine, Benson continues to flaunt his fantastic flow. 

"Still got the mullet rocking," the 18-year-old from Chilliwack, B.C. said with a smile. "I think I'm going to keep it for a while now." 

Benson insists there is no specific inspiration for his style choice. 

"Patrick Kane's is pretty famous but, honestly, I just thought I'd go with it and stuck with it," he said. "But Kane is definitely someone who comes to mind when you say 'mullet.'"

Perhaps Benson will provide mullet motivation for other players moving forward. He is, after all, attracting more and more attention these days. He came in No. 6 on NHL Central Scouting's final list of North American skaters. TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie had Benson at No. 8 in his latest list of all prospects, which came out ahead of May's draft lottery.  

When does Benson think he'll be picked later this month at the draft in Nashville? 

"I'm not too sure," he said. "I'm going to the Combine to try to open some eyes."

In a conversation with TSN, Benson described how he developed his high hockey IQ and broke down his success this season. The following is an edited transcript of the interview. 

TSN: Central Scouting lists you as 5-foot-9. The Western Hockey League has you at 5-foot-10. Let's clear this up. How tall are you? 

Benson: "I don't know. I'm like 5-foot-9.75. Closer to 5'10." 

TSN: Are you still growing? 

Benson: "There's a chance, but I have no clue." 

TSN: So, you're not the biggest guy. How do you overcome that? 

Benson: "I use my smarts. I got really good hockey IQ, so I outthink the bigger opponents and I use my skill to get around them and make plays." 

TSN: How did you develop your hockey sense? 

Benson: "Watching lots of hockey. I've been glued to the TV watching hockey since I was a young kid. That's really helped get my hockey IQ to where it is today." 

TSN: Who was your favourite player to watch growing up? 

Benson: "A guy like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, or Connor McDavid, too." 

TSN: When you watch McDavid, what do you see?

Benson: "Lots of speed. He's super smart, super skilled and can change the game just like that. He's a generational talent, but he's super, super smart too."

TSN: How does watching him help you? 

Benson: "Watching the plays that he makes when you don't really see the play and then he makes it. Those little split-second plays that he makes, those are the ones that I kind of see and try and use in my game." 

TSN: When you watch video of your game and your shifts, what are you looking for? 

Benson: "I usually watch video every time I wake up after a game. I look for the little plays that I didn't make or the little plays I did make to see what I could improve on and what I should keep doing." 

TSN: What's an example of a little play? 

Benson: "It sounds simple, but three-foot passes or a little sauce pass over the stick, or maybe I should've sauced it there or shouldn't have sauced it there. Just little stuff like that." 

TSN: Who is your NHL comparable? 

Benson: "I like to model my game after Brayden Point or Mitch Marner. A little bit of both. Both are complete players, who are super smart and have great offensive instincts." 

TSN: You were second in the WHL with six short-handed goals. What led to your success on the penalty kill? 

Benson: "We were pretty lethal on the PK. I killed with Matthew Savoie, so every chance we got to jump we jumped, and we made a few teams pay." 

TSN: Marner talks about how being an offensive-minded guy helps him on the PK because he knows what the power-play guys are thinking. Do you find that as well? 

Benson: "Yeah, absolutely. That's a great way to put it. You kind of know what they're going to do or expect what they're going to do. You play in both situations, and it definitely helps a lot." 

TSN: Where did you improve the most in the last year? 

Benson: "My strength and my first step. Those are two places I definitely want to keep improving, being a smaller guy. I slowly improved as the season went on and I hope to keep improving as the years and the summers go on." 

TSN: How did you work on your first step? 

Benson: "It's a lot of lower-body explosive stuff in the gym. You can do a little bit on the ice, but you have to build strength in your quads and core and your lower end there in the gym and that will contribute to your explosiveness on the ice." 

TSN: You had a lot of great plays this season, but the power-play goal against Saskatoon on Feb. 1 stood out. What did you see? 

Benson: "It was kind of a broken play. It went back to the neutral zone. I had a guy on me and fended him off and went the other way. I saw there were two defenders that didn't have the best gap, so thought I would take it in. I saw a little lane, so I split the D and then kind of lost it in my feet. I juggled it back up to my stick and the backhand side was open, so I put it in." 

TSN: What was the most difficult part of that play? 

Benson: "Probably just fending the guy off, honestly. He kind of was right on me, so I had to make a quick play. When I saw he fell, I turned up and went ... I didn't even think I could all the way. I was just like, 'I'm going to go for it.' I had good speed and saw a hole so just kind of went."  

TSN: What was it like playing on a line with Bedard at the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game? 

Benson: "That was a very cool moment. He's an exceptional player, so when I found out I would be playing with him it was pretty cool. We had lots of good shifts together and it was super fun. He's obviously a super talented player."

TSN: Did you notice anything different playing with him instead of against him? 

Benson: "Ah, not really. Every game he's so effective and has such a good shot and can release it from anywhere. It's obviously better to play with him than against him, but he's the same player every night." 

TSN: What's the mindset when you play against him? 

Benson: "Check hard and try to keep the puck off his stick. That's really the mindset."

TSN: What was it like dealing with an injury late in the season?

Benson: "It was tough. It was like two weeks before playoffs. It was something in my arm. I don't know the diagnosis, but it was a muscle or something in my arm. It wasn't ideal, but thankfully we have good athletic therapists in Winnipeg, and they got me going pretty quick. I stayed in pretty good shape and stayed ready, so that was the main part. When I got back, I felt pretty good and we made a good run, but ended shorter than we wanted it too."  

TSN: What happened on the play that led to the injury? 

Benson: "The puck was kind of on the boards, or came up from behind me, and I kind of saw [Edmonton Oil Kings centre Dawson Seitz] but I didn't think he was going to come. I dished the puck and thought he turned away, but he kept coming and he hit me. I fell awkwardly. I fell backwards onto my arm. It was kind of a weird fall and that, ultimately, led to the injury." 

TSN: So, you viewed it as a fluke play rather than dirty? 

Benson: "Yeah, for sure. He was finishing his check and that was on my end that I didn't see him coming ... I'm a smart player, so I usually see those plays and there's a lot of those guys who tried to run me this year and I did a really good job of making a play around it, but that one was just an awkward stage, and it was kind of just a fluke play." 

TSN: You returned for the second round of the playoffs and made a good run with Winnipeg. How long did it take to get over the loss in the championship series against Seattle?

Benson: "It's pretty tough. You play all season to win the championship and for you to end right at the final stage there, it's really tough. Such a great group of guys and that's going to be your last time with that exact group. I don't know if I’m even over it yet. It's over now, but it's tough to sweep under the rug." 

TSN: What did you take from the playoff run? 

Benson: "Playing Moose Jaw and Saskatoon, they're both good teams. Moose Jaw gave us a really good run there. They were up 2-1 on us and we came back. When we got to Seattle, they're just a powerhouse team. They got goaltending. They got high-end D. They got high-end forwards. We did a great job of competing with them. Everyone on our team competed and gave everything they had, and you look at a couple of those games, they could've gone either way. I'm proud of our group and the way we battled." 

TSN: What excites you the most about the Scouting Combine? 

Benson: "You grow up hearing about it, so everything. Meeting with teams and doing the exercises, all of that is kind of cool. And meeting the players too. Meeting some guys I don't know and meeting guys that I haven't seen in a year. The whole thing is super awesome."

TSN: What is the key to making a good impression in interviews? 

Benson: "Showing confidence. Going in there with your chin up and showing them that you're there to make a good impression and you're confident about everything you're saying."