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The first thing Simon Benoit did after he inked his new three-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs was phone his girlfriend and then his parents.

There wasn’t much to say other than an exchange of excitement, congratulations and a little profanity.

After spending a long summer unsigned, then having a rough showing at training camp and being sent down to the minors, the 25-year-old defenceman has now found his place in the Leafs lineup.

His rugged yet straightforward style of play has led to him becoming a reliable presence on the back end that head coach Sheldon Keefe can turn to. His fearless attitude when diving headfirst into dangerous areas of the ice, and opponents’ faces, has earned him applause from Leafs fans on various occasions.

With the new deal, he’s found what he considers his home, and it’s in what is widely regarded as the mecca of the hockey universe. This is not something expected from a late August depth signing.

“I don’t think I need to prove myself again that I belong in this league,” Benoit said. “It just shows that they trust me. They want me here.”

In September, 2018, after going undrafted, Benoit signed a one-year deal with the San Diego Gulls, the Anaheim Ducks’ AHL affiliate. He played his junior hockey career with Shawinigan Cataractes in the then-Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he was an eighth-round draft pick.

He spent parts of four seasons with the Gulls, where he played 160 games, before consistently finding his name on the Ducks’ team sheet during the 2021-22 season. He played 137 games during his time with the Ducks, 78 of which came during the 2022-23 season.

However, the California squad didn’t tender a qualifying offer to the restricted free agent. As a result, Benoit spent this past summer idling away unsigned, unsure of his future.

“It was a long summer,” he said. “When you don’t have a contract, you want it to happen as soon as possible … [but] it took a long time. It wasn’t a fun moment.”

After conversations with a couple of teams and back-and-forth negotiations, it seemed like a question of time for a deal to get done. Finally, Benoit put pen to paper on Aug. 28, 2023, signing a one-year, one-way contract with Toronto for the league minimum of US$750,000.

Benoit was excited to join a team with playoff aspirations – something he never had the opportunity to experience while in Anaheim.

“I was pretty happy knowing that the Leafs were trying to build a winning team,” he said. “Knowing that I could have the [chance] to be a part of it, I got pretty excited for sure.”

The Maple Leafs entered training camp with 21 defencemen competing for eight spots. Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Timothy Liljegren, Mark Giordano, John Klingberg, and Jake McCabe locked up six spots, leaving Benoit little room for error.

His performances throughout camp left the coaching staff underwhelmed. He then suffered a back injury, ending his hopes of making the opening-day roster. Benoit was sent down to the AHL to play with the Marlies – a league he is all too familiar with.

“He was very realistic in the way his camp had gone,” Keefe told reporters last month, the same day Benoit inked his new deal. “He had known that he didn’t have a great camp or didn’t show as much as he would have liked to.”

The Laval native went to work.

“When you get sent down, it’s never fun,” he said. “I believe in myself. I believe I’m an NHL player, so I knew when I got sent down, I needed to work harder.”

Once again, he felt it was simply a question of time before he made his Leafs debut. The opportunity just needed to present itself.

At the TD Gardens in Boston in early November, Timothy Liljegren was racing for a puck trailing into the Leafs zone against Brad Marchand. The pair’s feet tangled up, and the Leafs defenceman fell awkwardly into the boards. His left skate blade slammed into the boards first, jamming his ankle against them as Marchand stood over him. After a pause in a play, Liljegren needed assistance getting off the ice.

With a later diagnosis of a high-ankle sprain and a move to the long-term injured reserve, Liljegren was added to the Leafs’ depleted blueline, as McCabe and Timmins were also out with injuries.

The opportunity had presented itself for Benoit.

He was called up from the minors and made his Leafs debut two days later in front of a raucous Toronto crowd against the division rival Tampa Bay Lightning. He knew he had a second chance to make a good impression and didn’t want to let it go to waste.

The game was a goal-filled affair, with the Leafs storming back from a 4-1 deficit to win 6-5 in overtime. Benoit was a plus-one in 14 minutes of ice time.

“You only have one opportunity to make it count. When you make a good impression, they give you more opportunities. That’s how I approached it,” he said. “I knew I had to do good in that game, and I think I did. Since then, I have gained the coach’s confidence bit by bit.”

Since his appearance against the Lightning, Benoit has played in 57 of the Leafs’ 65 games, consistently engaging in postwhistle scrums and standing up for his teammates.

“He’s a competitive guy. We see it every night. He goes into battles with a physical mindset, and he’s done a great job with his length and his body picking off pucks,” Toronto forward Mitch Marner told reporters last month. “We’re happy to have him for three more years.”

Benoit’s three-year contract is worth US$4.05-million, with an annual cap hit of US$1.35-million.

His attitude on the ice gained the respect and affection of Leafs fans, and he has quickly become a fan favourite.

“The city is great, the fans are awesome,” Benoit said. “Some people recognize me on the street and stuff, so it’s funny. I didn’t get that in Anaheim … they have Kim Kardashian.”

With the regular season in its final stretch and the postseason fast approaching, Benoit wants to earn himself a spot in the lineup for the first game of the playoffs – just like he wanted to earn a spot on opening day.

However, he has a leg up on his past self this time. The coaching staff trusts his defensively reliable playing style that can be deployed on the penalty kill as well as at even strength.

“I just take pride in the simplicity … I don’t have a hard game to execute. I don’t have to score 60 goals a year,” Benoit laughed.

Yet, many bodies are battling for few spots after the trade-deadline acquisitions of defencemen Ilya Lyubushkin and Joel Edmundson.

Regardless, the Leafs organization rewarded Benoit for his hard work throughout the season, and it might reward him again.

Although Benoit doesn’t think he needs to prove himself any more, he says he won’t take his foot off the gas while searching for what he wants. Benoit doesn’t want to stop here, and that is drilled into his mindset.

“I can prove that by not giving up on your dream, it’s possible to achieve it,” Benoit said in French after an optional skate on Saturday in Montreal. “I never had an easy path and always took one step forward and two steps back, but I’ve managed to be here.”

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