“I’m just going to make my spot” Simon Benoit called his shot with the Leafs and it’s paying off

Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
6 months ago
Allow me to take you back to an article written by Luke Fox of Sportsnet, back on September 28. The Leafs had just signed Simon Benoit to a one-year contract worth $775,000. The 25-year-old was fresh off his first full season in the NHL, recording ten points in 73 games for the league-worst Anaheim Ducks. 
Before we get to the article, we have to add some context to just how bad this Ducks team was. They finished the season with a record of 23-47-12, totalling just 58 points by the end of the year. Not only were they dead last from a points perspective, they also had a goal differential of a whopping -129, the worst in the league and 13 goals behind the next-worst team in the Columbus Blue Jackets, who had a differential of -116. 
The Ducks are a young team. Their core is made up of Trevor Zegras, Mason McTavish, and Jamie Drysdale among others, all under the age of 23. With the addition of top-ten picks like Leo Carlsson and Pavel Mintyukov to the mix in 2023-24, they’ve got a bright future without a doubt. But with that bright future comes growing pains in the present. And a lot of the time, those growing pains involve young players thrust into big roles. Remember how much ice-time a then-22-year-old Morgan Rielly ate up alongside Matt Hunwick back in 2015-16? 
Benoit was one of those players. At only 24 years old last year, Benoit logged the fourth-most ice-time of any defenceman. I know that doesn’t seem like much, but this still translates to top-four minutes on a draft lottery team, and his ice-time only increased after John Klingberg and Dmitry Kulikov were shipped to other teams at the trade deadline. 
As a result, his defensive metrics from last season are a tough look. Most people looked the other way when general manager Brad Treliving signed him. Perhaps the fact that there was a new guy in the front office calling the shots played into the anxiety, and those who use analytics as their primary tool to evaluate players especially were skeptical of the signing, despite the fact that he was originally signed to fill a similar role to the one Jordie Benn did last year. 
Any way you slice it, Benoit had the odds stacked against him. His numbers from 2022-23 weren’t inspiring, the fans were either indifferent or disapproving of the signing, and from a depth chart standpoint, he would have to leapfrog at least three players to be given a sniff of the lineup, let alone stay there. 
But the Laval native wasn’t fazed. In fact, he was confident. 
Here’s where that Sportsnet article comes into play. Usually, when you have a player that’s expected to be among fringe players competing for a spot, you get the cliche quotes. “Just gonna do whatever I can to help the team, just gonna show up and work hard,” etc. Stuff like that. Well, Benoit didn’t stop at “work hard”. Here are some quotes from that original piece. 
“I’m just gonna make my spot” Benoit told the media in September. “I always work hard. And I always come to camp as a surprise. I got hurt, but as soon as I’m back on, I’ll make sure I make myself as part of the team”. 
He also made sure to share his stance on the Ducks’ decision to let him go.
“I personally think it’s a mistake on their part, and it’s a win for Toronto. I was happy to end up in Toronto, for sure.” 
To make things even more difficult for Benoit, he wasn’t healthy to start training camp. So, add recovery from back spasms to the list of hurdles he had to leap to get to where he is right now. Still, he didn’t break character. 
“I never got silver spoon-fed. Is that the right expression? For me, it’s nothing that changes. I’m not drafted. Who cares? Like at this point, I’m as good as anyone out there. So I’m just going to make my spot, like I said.” 
Again, this was all back in September. Somebody get this guy a crystal ball. 
I’m sure Benoit didn’t predict Klingberg getting shut down for the season with a hip injury only 14 games into his tenure as a Leaf. I’m sure he didn’t foresee Conor Timmins hurting himself during pre-season. I’m sure he didn’t expect Jake McCabe to pull his groin in late-October, and I’m sure he didn’t have money on Timothy Liljegren getting knocked out of the lineup with a high-ankle sprain later that same week. But it took all of those things happening for Benoit to finally get his shot with the Leafs. 
Since then, he’s made it increasingly difficult for them to take him out of the lineup with each game he plays. He doesn’t have a single point on the season yet, but that’s not why they signed him. They signed him for his physicality (66 hits in 22 games, tied for the team lead with Noah Gregor and Jake McCabe) and his reliable defensive play (56% defensive zone starts, 10.52% expected goals against, the lowest of any Leafs defenceman who have played at least 20 games), with a little bit of snot mixed in (two fights in the past week, one against Blue Jackets defenceman Erik Gudbranson and one against Los Angeles Kings defenceman Andreas Englund, 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-4 respectively).
Maybe it’s because he wears #2, but he reminds me a lot of what the Leafs got from Luke Schenn after acquiring him at last year’s trade deadline. I don’t think anybody should expect Benoit to start logging top-pair minutes anytime soon, and he shouldn’t; things are going really well for him the way they are right now, skating with McCabe and averaging just under 15 minutes per night. 
Benoit’s play is starting to catch the attention of both his teammates and his head coach. “He’s just done a good job of limiting anything against. He really stabilized our group that way.” Sheldon Keefe told reporters after Wednesday night’s win in Anaheim. “I think he just continues to get better and better and if he makes some mistakes, he’s working hard on it and we feel like he’ll continue to grow within our team.”
After each win, Leafs players have a tradition where they award a deserving player a championship belt that was given to the team by professional wrestler and noted Leafs fan Edge. Benoit was the recipient of the belt after the win against his former team, recognized for his strong defensive play, physicality, and getting two points in his old barn. 
“I can’t score a f***ing goal, but I’m glad to hit the bodies for you guys. Keep it going!” Benoit said after getting the belt. 
Let it be known that an upgrade on the defensive side of things should still be Brad Treliving’s top priority, but at this point, it shouldn’t come at the expense of Benoit. He’s been sturdy from the get-go and checks off a lot of the boxes the Leafs are looking to fill, such as physicality and defensive ability. He makes next to league-minimum, and he’s also a restricted free agent after this year, meaning the Leafs have first dibs at re-signing him. 
Players who come into training camp without a guaranteed spot on the team always have an extra chip on their shoulder, but Benoit has taken that chip and turned it into a great problem for the Leafs to have. You simply have to respect the grind he put in to get here.

Check out these posts...