‘Now I’m a Leafer’: Why the Maple Leafs should re-sign Simon Benoit

Kyper and Bourne talk with Luke Fox about how Simon Benoit has improved the Leafs' blue line and what he brings to the table.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — In the giddy aftermath of Wednesday’s wild overtime comeback victory over Lukas Dostal and the Anaheim Ducks, Toronto Maple Leafs starting goaltender Martin Jones debated whom to award the team’s player-of-the-game wrestling belt.

Clutch captain John Tavares, who finally solved a dialed-in Dostal in the third period?

Superstar Auston Matthews, a buzzsaw that ripped 20 shot attempts and pounded his 30th goal and first game-winner of the season?


Jones walked past the marquee forwards and handed the glittery prize to the lanky, mustachioed francophone in the ratty, sweat-stained shoulder pads.

“I can’t score a f—–‘ goal,” a smiling Simon Benoit told his teammates inside the visitors’ room of his old barn. “But I’m glad to hit the bodies for you guys.”

Then the affable defenceman who tells you to just call him “Benny” flashed a thumbs-up, his teammates applauded, and someone cranked the volume on G Unit’s “I Like the Way She Do It” in celebration.

The bass banged almost as hard as a Benny bodycheck.

Benoit’s stat line through his first 22 games as a Maple Leaf: no goals, no assists, two fights, 22 penalty minutes, and one lineup spot earned the hard way.

“We don’t like to put Benoit in too many offensive situations, quite frankly,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe says.

Yet despite starting 60 per cent of his shifts in the D-zone and getting matched against the opposition’s biggest forwards, Benoit still finds himself on the plus side of the ledger and is gradually earning more trust from his teammates and the staff because he protects the net, stuffs cycles and disrupts passes.

“He’s our biggest defenceman. He’s our most physical defenceman,” Keefe adds. “And, to me, he just continues to get better.”

Sure, Benoit wouldn’t mind hitting the scoresheet at some point here — he posted career highs in goals (three) and points (10) with the Ducks last season — but he’s embraced his defensive role with Toronto.

In turn, a fan base desperate for tangible evidence of hockey’s intangibles — care and grit and courage — has quickly embraced the depth D-man back.

Who cares if Benoit wins his fights? The man is willing to fight, despite his minimum-wage salary ($775,000).

Tweet that the Maple Leafs should re-sign the pending free agent, and it’ll be your most liked take of the week.

A common bit of wisdom for any skater on the bubble of a roster: Make yourself noticeable.

So even though Benoit can’t buy a secondary assist, he is jumping in the mug of super rookie Adam Fantilli, trying to Superman-punch heavyweight Erik Gudbranson, and busting up a dangerous two-on-one rush by going full sprawl.

(Paradoxically, Benoit is at once a little unhinged and extra safe, with both his simple puck decisions and his quick adoption of the neck guard.)

Dirty work is still work. And the undrafted Benoit has earned his ice of late by outduelling fellow Leafs defenders Conor Timmins and William Lagesson in the spirit of internal competition.

“I play in their system,” Benoit says. “They need a guy who hits, who plays physical, who blocks that blue line, and I think I do it well.”

Adds Morgan Rielly: “He’s been outstanding. The last couple weeks, he’s really had a chance to put (the) player he is on display. He’s a big guy that likes to be physical. He’s strong down low, and he can move the puck too. I think he’s had flashes of great stuff, but all around he’s been outstanding for us.”

Benoit was particularly engaged Wednesday in his return to Honda Center, facing a rebuilding team that didn’t deem him worthy of so much as a qualifying offer in June.

He tied a season high with four shots and protected Jones with smarts and aggression.

“My first time coming back here, right? That was my first time changing teams since I played hockey. I never got traded or anything. So, it was special,” Benoit says. “They were good to me at the time I was there, but I moved on.

“And now I’m a Leafer.”

Keep him a Leafer. For we are now believers, the way Benoit always was.

“I’ll make sure I make myself as part of the team,” Benoit vowed at training camp, despite battling back spasms in September and beginning his season with the AHL Marlies.

Players like Benoit who sign one-year deals in the off-season are eligible to re-sign as early as Jan. 1.

GM Brad Treliving already looks wise for taking a flyer on the Ducks’ castoff, and it would be smart to give Benoit a raise and lock him up with some term. He could become an RFA with arbitration rights this summer but should be rewarded in advance with a manageable sum.

For Toronto has just two everyday NHL defencemen under contract for 2024-25 (Rielly and Jake McCabe), plus Timmins. Benoit brings a refreshing element and attitude to the group and, at 25, the late-bloomer’s game should only improve with experience.

Don’t make the same error as Anaheim did and let him go.

“I personally think it’s a mistake on their part. And it’s a win for Toronto,” a confident Benoit said at camp. “I was happy to end up in Toronto, that’s for sure.”

Toronto should be happy to keep him here for a while.

Someone’s gotta hit the bodies, right?

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