Considering the Calgary Flames faithful have gone two-for-two over the past couple seasons in regards to seeing their rookie stars exceed expectations, 2015-16 looked as if it would simply be more of the same.
Current Flames rookie Sam Bennett can thank teammates Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau for those lofty expectations, as each young forward thrived during their first years in the league. Monahan – a sixth-overall pick from the 2013 NHL draft – surprised all when he cracked the 20-goal plateau in his first NHL campaign. Gaudreau ramped things up even more, potting 64 points in his debut season and earning a Calder Trophy nomination along the way.
Thus, it was expected that Bennett – who became the Flames’ highest draft pick in history when they selected him fourth-overall in 2014 – would put up similarly exceptional numbers. That hasn’t exactly been the case just yet. Through 35 games this season, Bennett has tallied only five goals and 14 total points – sums that certainly won’t have him knocking down the door for the Calder Trophy.
But don’t let Bennett’s numbers fool you. While he might not be potting goals at the same rates as his talented teammates, the 19-year-old centreman has undoubtedly been making a key impact for his club as of late.
Such was the case during Calgary’s recent historic victory over the Edmonton Oilers – a win which broke a franchise record for most consecutive victories on home-ice, as it was Calgary’s 11th straight at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
Despite not registering a single point in the game, Bennett’s impact on the outcome was significant, and his head coach made that fact clear in the postgame press conference. Said Hartley:
“In my book, that’s the best game that Sam Bennett gave us all year. He gave us lots of great games but tonight, that was one notch higher.”
What Hartley was referring to was Bennett’s return to the style of hockey that made him one of the top players in all of junior hockey during his days in the OHL – blending his elite offensive instincts with hard-nosed physicality. While Gaudreau led the forward corps in scoring with two goals, Bennett chipped in with four shots, five hits, one block and one takeaway in only 11:52 of ice-time.
It wasn’t simply the fact that he posted a versatile stat line, however. Bennett’s exceptional night came because of how exactly he imposed his will on the opposition. His finest moment came four minutes into the third period, as Calgary held a one-goal lead with Edmonton keen on evening things up.
As the Oilers left their zone to mount an attack, Bennett landed a pair of heavy hits on Oilers veteran Matt Hendricks, easily putting the big-bodied forward on his back despite a 30-pound weight difference.
The play galvanized both his team and the home crowd, while discouraging an Oilers comeback early in the final period. Key to consider is the fact that said hit came after Bennett had already mounted a number of dangerous scoring chances, and had come up with some strong defensive plays in his own zone as well.
This well-rounded style is precisely the reason the young pivot was so highly regarded leading up to the 2014 Draft, with many scouts even proclaiming him to be the likely first-overall selection prior to draft day. It wasn’t just Bennett’s offensive acumen that earned him that respect – though that is clearly present as well, considering he posted 155 points in his 128 regular season games in the OHL – but rather, his willingness to intertwine this pure skill with an indomitable work ethic.
Unlike many other skilled young forwards, Bennett isn’t afraid to dig deep in the tough areas of the ice, and he even seems to relish the opportunity to throw his weight around. That balance has proved to be crucial for the Flames, as Bennett has established himself as a player who can shift the momentum of a game in a variety of different ways. The Flames have seen the value in each of these opposing styles in two of their brightest stars – Johnny Gaudreau and Micheal Ferland.
One inspires his team with astounding displays of finesse and stickhandling wizardry, while the other does so with relentless offerings of physical dominance. In Bennett, the Flames have managed to find a little of both, as their promising young gun seems able and wholly willing to maximize the full extent of his skill-set to help his club.
While the first half of that equation – his offensive skill – hasn’t been clicking as well as he’s hoped, Bennett’s contributions haven’t been lost on his head coach, nor have the realities of his status in the league. Hartley recently offered this dose of perspective regarding that last point:
“Obviously people are talking about his ‘scoring drought’ – you know what, he’s 19 years old. He could be playing major junior in the Ontario league. He’s playing in the NHL. How many 19-year-olds play a regular shift in the NHL? There’s not too many. Yes, we want him to score every shift. Yes, he wants to score every shift. But we’re trying to make him understand, ‘Play the right way, play a good game, and you can still make us win.’”
Bennett certainly seems to have taken those words to heart, as he’s finding meaningful ways to contribute when his offensive game falls short. The quick-footed centre is making strides offensively as well, though he hasn’t yet gotten the bounces needed to buck his perceived scoring drought.
A few inches during Calgary’s recent loss to the Anaheim Ducks and it could’ve been a different story though. In a fairly mundane contest that saw Anaheim clog up the neutral zone and completely shut down Calgary’s offense, Bennett mounted the Flames’ best chance of the night (and realistically their only truly dangerous scoring chance) in the third period when he carried the puck end to end, easily deked out Ducks defender Kevin Bieksa with an inside-outside dangle, and rang the subsequent shot off the far post.
A goal would’ve tied the game up at 1-1 and given the young sniper some much needed confidence as he played the hero. Unfortunately, slightly missing the mark meant a 1-0 shutout loss.
Regardless, it’s clear that Bennett is progressing well in his first NHL campaign, and looks to be improving with each passing week. Though a Calder Trophy and a sizeable scoring sum may now be out of the question, Bennett continues to establish himself as a player who’s extremely hard to play against, even at age 19. Regardless of the potential trophies or personal accolades, he figures to be a central contributor for his club come playoff time, given his style of play – something that both he and the Flames will undoubtedly value much more than a banner offensive regular season.