Sam Bennett is one of the Calgary Flames’ best hopes for the future. After missing hockey for most of last season, he played a month in the OHL, tearing it up before eventually joining the Flames – and spending nine playoff games in the team’s top six.
It was an impressive performance for just about any player, scoring three goals (some would argue four) and two assists over the 12 total NHL games he got in. And over the course of those 12 games, he spent most of his time on the left wing.
Bennett is a centre, and a left winger. He’s a two-position player, and has already played in both positions at the NHL level.
His rookie season will soon be upon us, though. With a glut of centres already present on the Flames, the question is: should he be among them? Or should he play on the wing first?
What worked for Sidney Crosby?
Now, I’m not saying Bennett will be as good as Crosby, or that the two are the same, or anything like that. It’s just something that’s been on my mind when pondering this question, because when Sid first broke into the NHL, he wasn’t used as a centre. Not right away.
For the first half of his rookie season – pretty much until Ed Olczyk was fired as coach on Dec. 15, 2005 and Michel Therrien was brought in as replacement – Crosby started on the wing. He was moved back to his natural centre when Therrien came on board.
Under Olczyk, Crosby scored 13 goals and 18 assists, a point-per-game rate. Under Therrien, he scored 26 goals and 45 assists, which translates to 114 points over an 82-game season: an increase of 32 points when he changed positions.
Switching back to his natural position wouldn’t have been the only thing responsible for Crosby’s increase in scoring – after all, Crosby was more experienced by the time the Pens made their coaching change, which had a factor in and of itself – but it certainly didn’t hurt him.
When he was on the wing, he played a lot with Mark Recchi, John Leclair, and Ziggy Palffy (and a little bit of Mario Lemieux, but not for too long); when he moved to centre, he played more with Colby Armstrong, Ryan Malone, and still some Ziggy – but Armstrong is the glaring difference between the two phases in particular. This is all from a friend who took notes throughout Crosby’s rookie year, but the scoring data from that season seems to line up with this, for the most part.
Of that group, he was definitely playing with the higher quality players when on the wing (half of Armstrong’s points were scored in part thanks to Crosby, so he was far more dependent on him than any of the others), which may have played a role in deciding where to start him.
Considering the Flames’ logjam at forward, that may happen with Bennett, too.
The Backlund conundrum
As previously discussed, the Flames could pretty much make up an entire lineup of nothing but centres. They aren’t hurting for that position, which means there’s no immediate need to put Bennett down the middle.
There are good options for Bennett if he plays on the wing. He probably wouldn’t be on Sean Monahan’s line, what with Johnny Gaudreau and all, but the Flames aren’t hurting for quality centres. A Matt Stajan or a Josh Jooris would work, and we already saw how fantastic the Bennett-Backlund combination was.
There’s just one major problem with putting Bennett on Mikael Backlund’s line: what does that mean for the rest of the team’s roles?
Backlund is really, really good on the defensive side of things. Therefore, it makes sense to play him in a defensive role, taking defensive zone starts: something he has done a lot over the past few seasons. This conflicts directly with where you want Bennett to play, though, given that he’s a rookie with a high offensive ceiling. You’d rather Gaudreau him; that is, you’d rather give him more offensive zone starts.
In the playoffs, with Bennett on his wing, Backlund received far more offensive zone starts than he did in the regular season. Monahan was extremely sheltered, Backlund was closer to breaking even relative zone start-wise, and Stajan and Jooris took more of the defensive starts (and actually fared reasonably well).
The question is, do you trust Jooris to be able to handle that over the course of a full season? Do you remove one of your best defensive players from that side of things so he can play as a (very good, for the record) linemate for a rookie? Limiting shots against has been a problem for the Flames; do you sacrifice that for the potential for more offence? Or do you simply start playing Bennett in tougher situations from the get-go?
Bennett and Backlund looked great together in the playoffs, but Bennett and Backlund should probably be playing different roles throughout the season.
Which takes away one of the better linemates you can give him – and you want Bennett to have quality linemates, not Colby Armstrongs.
And no Brandon Bolligs
When Lance Bouma returned to the lineup 10 games into the playoffs, he was immediately placed on Backlund’s left side, and Bennett was bumped down to the fourth line. The Flames burned the first year of Bennett’s entry level contract so he could play between Brandon Bollig and Mason Raymond.
That absolutely cannot be a regular circumstance in the coming season.
Gaudreau’s rookie season was handled well. He was sheltered in the offensive zone, and given a quality veteran linemate in Jiri Hudler to help him out throughout the year. As a result, he burst onto the scene offensively, and with 64 points, was one of the Flames’ top scorers. That’s pretty much what you want to happen with Bennett.
Which means Bennett cannot play on the fourth line with guys who take more penalty minutes then play games. But then again, with the Flames having so many forwards available, their fourth line may not look like a traditional grinder type. (You still want Bennett to get actual minutes, though.)
And there are decent enough players available if Bennett isn’t alongside Backlund. Let’s assume Gaudreau, Monahan, Hudler, Backlund, and Michael Frolik are out of the picture, along with, based on recent history, Bouma (Hartley already bumped Bennett from Backlund’s line once before to put him back there). Those are two lines already made up.
Do you want to keep the Micheal Ferland – Matt Stajan – David Jones playoff line together? For the sake of simplicity, let’s say yes.
That leaves Bennett with some combination of Brandon Bollig, Paul Byron, Joe Colborne, Josh Jooris, Mason Raymond, and Drew Shore. Some are terrible options (seriously – do not play Bollig with Bennett ever again, ever), but most have the potential to be decent.
Nobody in that group is as good as Backlund, though.
The centre and the wing
And then, there’s probably what’s going to actually happen: Bennett may very well have a rookie season just like Crosby’s, playing both centre and wing.
It’s pretty much impossible to figure out line combinations right now due to the sheer volume of forwards available, and even when that whittles down, Bob Hartley is, in all likelihood, going to experiment throughout the season. Even the top line didn’t become a line until February or so; Gaudreau’s linemates in the first game of this past season were Colborne and Byron.
Ideally, long term, Bennett is a centre. But right now, his best option to play with high quality linemates would be to put him on the wing. So maybe that’s how he should start the season, and things will go from there.