When Sam Bennett was cleared to return to the game, fans immediately went on edge.
The Calgary Flames are poised to make a playoff push; where they stand right now, they’re guaranteed a spot in the Pacific Division. All the advanced numbers suggest that the Flames have simply been getting lucky, but they’ve ridden the luck nearly sixty games into the season — at this point, the post-season is shifting from just a distant dream to a legitimate reality for Calgary.
In a similar situation, though, are the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL.
With a depleted roster plagued by both outward-bound trades and ill-timed injuries, the Frontenacs are hovering on the edge of being legitimate playoff contenders for the Memorial Cup this spring. Led by Lawson Crouse — a top-rated prospect heading into the 2015 NHL Entry Draft — and highly praised netminder Lucas Peressini, the Frontenacs are falling just short of looking dangerous; all it would take was that extra little push from an elite talent to give them an edge in the post-season.
For both teams, the addition of Sam Bennett would be a dream come true — but in an attempt to keep the eighteen-year-old’s best interests at heart, the team returned him to the OHL for the time being.
According to NBC’s Pro Hockey Talk, Bennett sounds about as thrilled to be heading back to the minors as he was to be forced into surgery this fall for a torn labrum. He had tried to play through the injury and downplayed the pain at the time, determined to show the Flames that he was ready to help make them competitive; now, he’s just determined to shake off the rust and make it back to the big club.
“After the fourth month it gets a little annoying,” Bennett told the Flames website. “Wherever I play I’m ready to go. I don’t feel hesitant at all out there. I guess it’s just a matter of getting my confidence back up again.”
If the Frontenacs make an early exit from the playoffs this Spring — something they’re all too familiar with after a first-round exit last year — Bennett will get a chance to rejoin the Flames; if they make a push for the Memorial Cup, he’ll be around to help them do so. It’s a win-win, even if he doesn’t necessarily see it that way yet.
At eighteen, Bennett hasn’t had a lot of time to develop into an NHL-caliber player; even elite prospect Connor McDavid seemed to need an adjustment period at the World Junior Championships this winter following his recovery from a broken hand. Bennett hasn’t been in the game for even longer than McDavid was held out; while the younger center spent just over a month recovering from a punch to the glass that injured his hand, Sam Bennett — who went fourth overall at the NHL Entry Draft this past summer in Philadelphia — hasn’t played in a true contest since April 1st of last season. Apart from the pre-season and development camps he participated in over the summer, the only time that Bennett has seen the ice has been when he’s on it trying to get back into the swing of things.
If he can make a deep playoff push with the Frontenacs, Calgary fans may be disappointed that they won’t get a chance to see the young star at the Saddledome this season — but considering the talent in the CHL this season, Bennett will be in good company if he does so.
Max Domi and the London Knights have overcome what was supposed to be an off-season for them (trading away Michael McCarron to boost the Oshawa Generals’ roster and losing Bo Horvat to the Vancouver Canucks at the start of the season), while Leon Draisaitl was returned to the CHL to help the Kelowna Rockets make a push in the post-season. Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters look deadly, and even the QMJHL has some elite competition to offer. Laurent Dauphin and Nikolaj Ehlers are topping the Quebec leaderboards, and even Bennett’s own teammate, Crouse, is looking like someone powerful this season. Mitch Marner, Dylan Strome, Christian Dvorak… and that’s just looking at offense. There’s no better way to see how ready Bennett is for the big leagues than to pit him against one of the most competitive groups of major junior players Canada has seen in over a decade.
Of course, even if the Frontenacs make an early exit from the playoffs Bennett will be given an advantage; after getting his skates broken in at the OHL level, the young star can then appear with the Flames to finish off the season. A year of his contract won’t be burned off, and he’ll be able to ease into play rather than jumping right in.
Regardless of how his spring plays out, though, Flames fans will want to watch — starting with his season debut this Wednesday.