Marner, Benson glad to join Canada's cheering section during world juniors

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BUFFALO — Mitch Marner and Zach Benson will have similar rooting interests starting on Boxing Day.

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For different reasons, the Maple Leafs’ star winger and the Buffalo Sabres’ rookie forward will break out their red and white pompoms once the 2024 world junior hockey championship begins in Sweden.

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Marner, like anyone who is a part of Leafs Nation, will be curious to see how Leafs prospects Fraser Minten and Easton Cowan perform for Canada. Benson, until recently, was high on Canada’s wish list before the Sabres made the decision to keep the 18-year-old in the NHL.

Canada’s first game in the tournament is against Finland on Tuesday. 

“I’ll try to watch as much as I can, texted both those guys after they made it, congratulating them and said to them to have a great time and enjoy it,” said Marner, who was part of the Canadian team that finished sixth at the 2016 world juniors. “Both guys bring a lot of skill, a little bit of fieriness and smart play. It’ll be fun to cheer for those two and it helps they are on the Canadian side.”

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After he had 98 points in 60 games last season for the Winnipeg Ice of the Western Hockey League, Benson was picked 13th overall by the Sabres at the draft in June. The thinking was Benson would head back to the WHL this season and star for the Wenatchee Wild (formerly the Ice), which would have put him in line to become a key player for Canada in Sweden.

An excellent start with the Sabres was sustained by Benson, however, and it wasn’t a tough decision for the club to keep him.

“You’re happy that (Canada) thinks they need you and you would help them win hockey games,” Benson said. “But being an 18-year-old in the best league in the world, you’re pretty happy with playing in the NHL. At the same time, you want to represent your country, you want to play for Hockey Canada, you want to try to help your country bring back the gold medal.

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“For me, it was a win-win. If (the Sabres) released me, I would have been ecstatic. But they kept me and I’m happy to stay here and help this team win hockey games. It’s pretty hard to put into words.”

Two of Benson’s junior teammates — Conor Geekie and Matt Savoie — are suiting up for Canada. He’s close with forward Brayden Yager and he played minor hockey with defenceman Tanner Molendyk. 

Naturally, the texting between Benson and his pals with Canada has picked up.

“We’re staying in touch quite a bit,” Benson said. “And I’m sure as the tournament goes on, I’ll be saying, ‘Nice goal,’ ‘Nice play.’ I’m going to catch as many games as possible.”

In Group A with Canada and Finland are Sweden, Latvia and Germany. Canada has won gold at the past two world juniors.

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The Sabres have fallen drastically short of expectations that were coming from both outside and inside the organization during the off-season. 

Buffalo was 3-7-1 in its past 11 games prior to Thursday and was seven points out of a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. While it’s hard to write a team off with several months remaining in the regular season, few will be surprised if the Sabres miss the Stanley Cup playoffs for a 13th consecutive year.

“Our coach (Don Granato) can do so much, it’s up to us in the room, it’s up to the leaders, we have to play better,” Sabres defenceman Rasmus Dahlin said. “We have to bring more to the team. It’s as simple as that.”

Buffalo, perhaps, can take some solace in the plight of the Ottawa Senators. Also expected to make inroads in the Atlantic Division, the Sens — who fired general manager Pierre Dorion and coach D.J. Smith weeks apart — have been worse and have settled into last place in the Eastern Conference.

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Defenceman Mark Giordano, who has been out of the lineup since Nov. 28 when he suffered a broken finger against Florida, participated in a full morning skate for the first time during his recovery. “It is encouraging, great to see him out,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He has been progressing very well. He won’t play before Christmas. The timeline points more toward him being day to day as we return from the Christmas break.” … Anyone who has attended a Leafs game knows the drill: Auston Matthews and Marner are the last two Leafs players on the ice at the end of warmup (though they’ve been joined this year by Nick Robertson) and use the final minutes to pass back and forth, firing pucks into the net until they absolutely must get off the ice. “In London (with the Ontario Hockey League’s Knights), I was always the last guy off in warmup and me and (Christian) Dvorak would always do a little passing thing at the end and do our own little thing,” Marner said. “It started here with Auston and eventually it turned into a ritual.” … Benson has taken up residence with Dahlin and, like Matthew Knies with John Tavares in Toronto, couldn’t ask for more in living with the veteran as he gets accustomed to life in the NHL. “To move into his basement and to get meals cooked by his chef and all those kind of things, it’s pretty awesome,” Benson said. “He is so welcoming. If there is something I need, in a heartbeat he is doing that for me.”

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