After posting career highs in games played (78), points (10), hits (216) blocks (128), and skating top-four minutes (19:21) for the NHL’s last-place club in 2022-23, extension talks deteriorated early.
Anaheim decided not to qualify the big man as a restricted free agent in June.
“I personally think it’s a mistake on their part. And it’s a win for Toronto,” a confident Benoit said this week, following his first full practice in a Maple Leafs sweater.
“I was happy to end up in Toronto, that’s for sure.”
Despite his imposing size (6-foot-3, 203 pounds) and prime age (he turned 25 last week) the undrafted Benoit lingered on the free agent market until Brad Treliving — who saw Benoit plenty in the Pacific Division — inked him to a low-risk, one-year, $800,000 deal in Toronto.
Benoit arrived in town weeks prior to training camp’s opening to acclimatize with the guys on his new club, having only known fellow ex-Duck Klingberg.
Unfortunately, he suffered lower-back spasms prior to camp’s official opening and only shed his red no-contact sweater Wednesday.
He’s a week behind and has yet to appear in a preseason game.
Our depth chart has Benoit positioned on the Leafs’ “fourth pair” alongside camp standout Conor Timmins.
“I’m just gonna make my spot,” asserts Benoit, a francophone from Laval, Que.
“I always work hard. And I always came 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.”
Sheldon Keefe says Benoit has “got some catching up to do, for sure,” but his 137 games of NHL experience will not be overlooked.
The coach likes Benoit’s size and strength, and it’s no secret the Maple Leafs could use an effective blueliner comfortable logging the grunt minutes.
“I have a really physical game,” Benoit says. “For me, the most important part is just being physical, being reliable defensively. And if I can bring some offence, good. But I know it’s not my main focus. I just want to be hard to play against and not letting the guys come to the net.”
Yes, Benoit was an ugly minus-29 last season — a stat that cooled his market value, no doubt.
In the defenceman’s defence, however, he started 73.7 per cent of his shifts in the D-zone, and the rebuilding Ducks (NHL-worst minus-129 goal differential) were generally must-skip TV.
“Sometimes it can be hard. Like, I’m always trying to play with a goal in mind. And when you know you’re out of the playoffs, it gets hard,” Benoit says.
“But you just need to focus on your personal game and try to improve the aspects of your game you have some difficulties in. I think last year, because I had a lot of ice time, I managed to improve a lot of aspects of my game and gain confidence on the ice and make more plays.”
The question now: Will Benoit be making those plays in the NHL? Or back in the AHL, where he’s only played one game since clawing his way out of the minors in 2020-21?
So what if Benoit arrives as an inexpensive long shot? Or a September injury has put him behind the eight ball? He’s used to battling for his minutes.
“I never got silver spoon-fed. Is that the right expression?” Benoit says, with a grin.
“For me, it’s nothing that changes. I’m not drafted. Who cares? Like at this point, I’m as good as anybody out there. So I’m just going to make my spot, like I said.”