Just as has been the case for the past two seasons, the Calgary Flames faithful find themselves enamoured with a new rookie forward making his name in the big leagues. Drafted with the fourth-overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, centreman Sam Bennett has been an exceptional addition to the Flames organization thus far.
He may not be lighting it up like some of this season’s other rookie phenoms — and may not have yet reached the first-year level set by teammates Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau — but there’s no denying that Bennett has been a success so far in his first NHL campaign.
After getting off to somewhat of a slow start, Bennett has racked up 10 points in the past 12 games, suggesting the former OHL standout is starting to pick up steam. While the offense is nice, it’s only a part of Bennett’s exceptional performance thus far. Unlike the Calgarian rookie talents that came before him, Bennett has put together a strong two-way game early in his career. Through 20 contests, he already has the numbers to suggest he’s one his team’s best in this regard.
He’s been quite reliable in terms of allowing his team to generate offensive opportunities while he’s on the ice, evidenced by his Corsi-For percentage of 50.3% — one of the top five percentages among all Flames forwards. Perhaps Bennett’s most useful skill outside of his offfense has been his ability to draw penalties. The 19-year-old currently leads the Flames in terms of minor penalties drawn per 60 minute (with a mark of 1.57), which he’s made even more useful by taking very few penalties himself – only .20 penalties per 60 minutes so far this season.
Head coach Bob Hartley has certainly noted Bennett’s responsibility, which has led to more defensive minutes for the young pivot. Whereas Bennett’s rookie predecessors, Monahan and Gaudreau, are taking the majority of their shifts in the offensive zone (the pair’s offensive zone start percentages both ring in at over 59%), Bennett’s split his been much more even. He’s started only 50.7% of his shifts in the offensive zone, and up until the Flames’ recent games, he had in fact seen his zone starts trending more towards his own zone.
Bennett has benefitted from spending time on a line with notable two-way talents like Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik. The young forward’s role for the Flames’ forward corps has bounce around a little bit already – from centering the third line to playing on Backlund’s second-line wing to centering the first line alongside Gaudreau — which has helped him form a greater appreciation for each of these different roles for the team.
Despite being switched back and forth between primarily offensive roles and tougher shutdown roles, Bennett has managed to bring the heat offensively. In a limited offensive role (he’s averaging just 15:17 minutes of ice-time per game), Bennett has risen to be one of Calgary’s most opportunistic scorers, sitting in the top four among all Flames players in terms of goals, assists, and points per 60 minutes.
It’s this sense of balance that has long defined the strength of Bennett’s game. He possesses top-tier offensive skill, sure, but he’s complemented that skill with a hard-nosed edge, leaving him a deceptively physical player who isn’t afraid to create space with a well-placed hit rather than a dazzling stickhandling display.
However, the true beauty of Bennett’s style is the fact he can truly do either, as he’s shown time and time again this season. The rookie centreman has shown flashes of greatness already in his young career, potting exceptional highlight-reel goals like this one:
Through his first batch of NHL contests, Bennett’s biggest task has seemingly been that of finding a balance between these two opposing skill-sets. Playing in a league filled with much bigger and faster opponents surely limits his ability to bring the physicality, and thus, timing is everything for the teenage star, in terms of choosing when to engage physically and when to utilize his speed instead.
But it seems Bennett has gotten a fairly strong grasp of that balance so far, and is rounding into form defensively as well. This progression is crucial, as Bennett’s elite offensive skill is sure to only get more and more lethal as he develops and matures in the big leagues. That being the case, it seems the sky is the limit for Bennett’s potential. He’s always been an offensive wizard, but adding in an elite two-way game could allow him to do so much more, and to perhaps finish his career as the top talent among Calgary’s elite young group.