While everyone’s focus is rightly on the playoff chase in the National Hockey League. But hey, there’s a decent chance that some goings-on in the Ontario Hockey League could have an impact on the race.
And yes, I’m talking about Sam Bennett.
The Kingston Frontenacs are down 3-0 to the North Bay Battalion in their first round series. Game 4 is on Thursday, and there’s a good chance that the Fronts will be swept and Bennett will suddenly be without much to do.
So what do the Flames do with Sam Bennett if/when he becomes available, whether it’s Thursday or whenever his series ends?
There are basically three things that can happen for Bennett. He can go to Calgary, as Jarome Iginla and others have. He can go to Adirondack on an ATO, like Emile Poirier did in Abbotsford last season. Or they can shut him down, given that he’s had a hectic year of surgery, rehab and moving around. Giving him some time off may be a good call.
THE SAFE PICK: ADIRONDACK
If the Flames want to play it safe, they can always send Bennett to the AHL. There’s no risk of his contract running, as he’d be on an amateur try-out deal. The Baby Flames are in the midst of a playoff push, but it’s a bit lower-key than the craziness of an NHL playoff.
The Baby Flames have 10 games left – it’ll be 8 after Thursday – and they need as many skilled bodies as they can get their hands on. Ryan Huska showed he doesn’t mind throwing new bodies into the mix this past weekend, as he put newly-signed Kenney Morrison in after a few practices. With Markus Granlund, Michael Ferland and Drew Shore up in Calgary, the Baby Flames could use a bit of high-end skill to go with their work ethic.
Bennett would be a good fit, and it’d be an alternative to throwing him into the deep end.
THE BOLD PICK: CALGARY
By the time Sam Bennett is available – optimistically, let’s say that Kingston loses on Thursday – the Flames will have four games left.
Now, if you look at the team’s roster and general line-up card, Bob Hartley has been pretty consistent. As the old saying goes, he’s danced with the ones that brought him. The Flames haven’t made any big acquisitions, and for the most part, the players that have performed well this season are the ones that have gotten the ice time. And now that the playoffs are up for grabs, the players are playing the same way they have all season. One reason behind this may be because the locker room is full of guys that have won games for each other in all sorts of manners, so that if one of them screws up and the team loses a game, pretty much everyone can recall a time where that player had bailed them out.
This may be a reason why Emile Poirier and Tyler Wotherspoon haven’t factored into the line-up; they haven’t had the time to build up the locker room cache, and it’s a bit unfair to put them in a situation where they could have a negative balance at season’s end. Hartley continues to ride the guys that got this team to the verge of the dance.
That brings us to Bennett.
The thing with Sam Bennett is that he’s been around the hockey team all season long, aside from being sent back to the OHL on February 21 and going home for Christmas. Up until that point, he was living in Calgary, practicing in Calgary and working out with the team in Calgary. For the majority of the season, aside from playing, he was basically part of the team.
Any other player, I can see the team being very hesitant to put them into the line-up over somebody who’s been on the roster all season. But if a player is bruised and there’s a top nine spot vacant, the decision-making calculus for Sam Bennett is a little bit different because the players – and Hartley – have likely gotten to know him a lot better than they would anybody they bring up from the farm.
That’s why I think they’ll at least bring Bennett to the big club. There are plenty of bottom-six bodies that can cycle in and out, but Bennett may be one of the few players with the skill-set and talent level to jump into an offensive role if injury strikes. Players get injured all the time during the playoffs, and it’s immensely helpful to have players around that you feel you can trust – both as a coach and as a teammate.
SO WHAT HAPPENS?
My gut says the scenarios can probably be structured, from most likely to least likely, like this:
- Bennett goes to the AHL.
- Bennett goes to Calgary as part of the Black Aces but doesn’t actually play.
- Bennett goes to Calgary and plays because of an injury.
- Bennett goes to Calgary and plays because Hartley sits somebody from the top nine.
- Bennett goes home and relaxes.
My gut says that the smart money is the Flames remain smart. But given that they’ve test-driven most of the team’s top prospects at a pro level except for Bennett this season, and their familiarity with him as a person and as a player, there’s a decent chance we see him wearing the Flaming C before the last game is played this season.