The identity of the Calgary Flames’ top prospect probably isn’t too surprising. Outside of Johnny Gaudreau, who was a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy last season and is thus not eligible for these rankings, I cannot think of a more exciting player in the organization right now than Sam Bennett.
It takes a special type of player to nearly make an NHL team with a bum shoulder, to undergo surgery on that shoulder in October, briefly dominate the OHL coming in cold in mid-season, and then contribute to a fairly successful NHL playoff run.
But hey, Sam Bennett is a special hockey player. By a unanimous selection of the FlamesNation writing staff, he’s the Calgary Flames’ top prospect.
I have to admit that I didn’t see Sam Bennett play in-person during his draft year. The Top Prospects Game was in Calgary, but Bennett was injured, so he was the only “major” Canadian prospect that wasn’t in attendance. By sheer coincidence, he was who the Flames took – at the time I had hoped that Aaron Ekblad somehow fell to the Flames.
Bennett was chosen with the best pick the Calgary Flames ever received at the NHL Draft – and the second-best in franchise history dating back to Atlanta drafting second overall twice in the ’70s. He was ushered into the Ontario Hockey League and mentored by Kingston Frontenacs general manager Doug Gilmour, a former Flame and Hockey Hall of Famer in his own right.
Bennett’s style of play fit Gilmour’s Frontenacs like a glove; he plays like a pitbull. He’s a strong skater and plays very well with the puck, and he’s physical and tenacious away from the puck. I wouldn’t say he’s the world’s greatest defensive player, but he’s not awful, either. Playing as a 17-year-old in the OHL in his draft-eligible year, he missed a bunch of games with injuries or suspensions and “only” played 57 games. He got 55 assists and 91 points in that span. His only real issue was trying to reel in his physicality and pick his spots rather than go nuts all the time.
He was the top-ranked North American skater in the draft per NHL Central Scouting. He couldn’t do a pull-up at the combine. It became a thing that the Internet cared about. On the TSN draft special, he did a bunch of pull-ups at a playground.
Somehow he fell to Calgary at fourth overall.
Bennett had an excellent training camp last year. He was one of the best players in the pre-season games, dangling around AHLers and NHLers alike. Some thought he might make the team. He seemed good enough to make the team. People in the press box were trying to rationalize how he could be left off the team or sent back to the OHL given how he was playing. He had Johnny Gaudreau’s level of on-ice swagger along with 25 extra pounds of muscle and a bit of a mean streak in the corners. But it turns out he had a bum shoulder – and almost made the NHL roster before they discovered the extent of the injury.
He went under the knife in October and spent the majority of the season in Calgary, rehabbing and being around the NHL team. He was briefly sent back to the Kingston Frontenacs, playing really well throughout the last month of the season and the first round of the playoffs. When Kingston was eliminated, the Flames recalled Bennett to the NHL. He made his NHL debut against Winnipeg in Game 82, getting an assist on his first NHL shift. He turned out to be one of the big surprises of the post-season, playing on a pretty effective line with Mikael Backlund and Joe Colborne.
When you’re on a line with Backlund and there’s a debate as to who the better player was, you’re a pretty decent hockey player.
When Bennett was 17, he was a pretty damn good OHL player. When he was 18, he missed the majority of the year with an injury and yet still didn’t look out of place in the NHL. Now, armed with knowledge of how NHLers prepare and the confidence from having been a difference-making player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s almost guaranteed that Sam Bennett will become a regular NHLer as a 19-year-old.
The smart, rational thing to do is to warn against the burden of expectations. He’s the highest-drafted player in Calgary Flames history. His short stint in the NHL was great, but we saw what expectations did to Sven Baertschi. Let’s not get carried away, says the little voice in my head. But there’s another voice in my head that remembers watching him pull off sick toe-drags on NHLers in the pre-season and thinks “Imagine how great he could be with a full summer of training and a shoulder that’s 100%.”
Well, we’re probably going to find out. For now, he’s Calgary’s top prospect. We’ll see what he reveals himself to be over the next 82 games.
Hard to evaluate his year considering he didn’t play a ton thanks to the shoulder surgery. When he finally returned, he clearly wasn’t 100%. But he still performed well and that’s a testament to his talent level. I would expect that a summer of both healing, and workouts means he’ll be ready to crack Calgary’s roster right out of camp and be an impact player. Bennett is a very complete player who plays bigger than he is. His intensity level on the ice is incredibly high. He’ll make or take a hit to make a play. He’ll work his butt off on the forecheck and is already a very solid player along the boards. But his bread and butter is his offensive skill level. Skill and creativity with the puck is exceptionally high. His skating ability is outstanding. It’s not necessarily his speed (which is great), but more so his edging and overall agility. Turns, stops, starts, etc on a dime. This makes him so difficult to contain in the cycle when he can make things happen very quickly. His head for the game is also well above average and he reads situations well at both ends of the ice. In terms of a weakness, honestly it’s just about continuing to add strength. Outside of that, Bennett is a player with not many warts.
-Brock Otten, OHL Prospects Blog