What’s going on with Sam Bennett? That’s one of the most frequent questions I’ve gotten on my positive, optimistic postgame call-in show Overtime these days. For the most part, I understand the inquiry. Bennett remains Calgary’s highest ever draft pick and the expectations got raised even more after his playoff performance last season. With just one point in eight game, some would argue Bennett has been underwhelming in his first full NHL season. I’m here to tell you, though, that Bennett is doing just fine.
I’m really not putting a lot of weight in Bennett’s offensive totals this season. At this stage I want to see two things from Bennett. First, as a 19-year-old forward, I want to see him take steps and progress in his first year in the league. Second, I want Bennett to be used in a role where he can be a useful player and help the team. It’s still October, so it’s too early to talk about or track the former. The latter, however, has actually been accomplished to this point.
Bennett isn’t being used in an offensive role at all right now. He’s played further down the depth chart either as a centre or a winger and has been given far more defensive responsibility than most players his age would see. For instance, his 44.7% offensive zone start ratio is the sixth lowest on the team among forwards. While he hasn’t always gone head to head with top opposition players, he has seen plenty of heavies on the other side, specifically on nights when he’s played with either Mikael Backlund or Michael Frolik.
So what does this tell us? Mostly it’s an indication of a coaching staff more than comfortable playing a rookie in fairly tough situations. There aren’t a lot of other rookies seeing defensive responsibility like Bennett right now. As a point of comparison, look at the zone start ratios for other big name rookies like Connor McDavid (58.1%), Dylan Larkin (56.4%), and Oscar Lindberg (68.1%). Most rookie forwards are well served to see more sheltered, offensively tailored minutes. Bennett hasn’t gotten that same treatment, and yet he’s still been effective.
Maybe the most telling comparison for Bennett is his Calgary teammate Sean Monahan. Both players are high picks and we’re expecting the pair to be the team’s top two centres for years to come. Monahan had nine points in his first eight NHL games while Bennett has just the one in his first eight games this season. But as you’ll see below, the two players were used in stark contrast to one another.
As you can see, my table game is improving. As you can also see, Bennett has similar possession numbers in his first eight games this year as Monahan did in his first eight games of 2013-2014. The difference is Monahan was given the offensive high ground early in his rookie year while Bennett has seen far more defensive responsibility. It’s not a perfect comparison because Bennett played postseason games last year, but it still paints an interesting picture.
Bennett’s possession numbers are actually slightly better than Monahan’s were at the same stage in his first season. In fact, Bennett’s Corsi rating puts him fifth on the Flames among forwards right now despite the more defensively skewed role.
So why is Bennett being used so differently early on this season? It really comes down to Calgary’s depth at forward and their faith in Bennett. In Monahan’s rookie season, the Flames didn’t have, like, anyone to count on offensively. That’s different this year, as the top line of Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Jiri Hudler are the ones being given the offensively tailored minutes and there’s only so many of those to go around. Because Bennett doesn’t need them to be effective, it’s allowed the Flames to use him in a different role.
For me, Bennett’s case is most similar to Ryan O’Reilly’s rookie year in Colorado. As an 18-year-old second round pick, O’Reilly was hammered with defensive zone starts in his first couple years which saw his point totals suffer a little bit. But really good players adjust, progress, and eventually start producing in difficult two way roles.
O’Reilly didn’t break out offensively until his third year in the league when he put up 55 points after consecutive 26 point seasons. Bennett is a really good player, and I honestly am not worried about him not being a productive offensive player over the course of his career. But right now, as a rookie, he’s being asked to help the team in a different way. And he’s doing the job fairly well.
Even if you disagree with my assessment of Bennett’s play early on, he’s not going anywhere. Bennet is ineligible to play in the American Hockey League this season and it would make absolutely zero sense to return him to junior. Not only does Bennett belong in the NHL, but his entry level contract is already in year two.
I think the criticism Bennett is garnering in some circles early this season is off base. He’s been given a role, he’s played it well, and he has shown few if any signs of being over his head at the NHL level. It just so happens that his role isn’t one that is overly conducive to high point totals right now. That’s okay, because he’ll get there eventually and in the meantime, he can still help the team win.