It’s time to put Sam Bennett at centre

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Everyone is still buzzing over Sam Bennett’s star making performance against the Florida Panthers on Wednesday night, and for good reason. Bennett was spectacular in becoming the 11th Flames player to ever record four goals in one game. Here’s the thing, though: he did it as a winger. I think it’s time to shift Bennett back to centre ice, and I’ve got three reasons why.

It’s good for the long term

Calgary drafted Bennett as a centre and they seemingly project him as one of their top two pivots longterm. For that reason alone, I think Bennett needs to see some significant time down the middle in his formative years in the NHL. While I love the prospect of having a fast, skilled player like Bennett play on the wing in theory, I believe his worth to the Flames in the big picture is at centre ice.

We can quibble and debate who’s going to be better in the long run between Bennett and Sean Monahan, but one thing we can’t debate is how much time the latter got at centre in his rookie season. There was never any question about where Monahan was going to play during the 2013-2014 campaign, as they slotted him down the middle right from the very beginning. His minutes were sheltered to start, of course, but he still got his feet wet playing arguably the most important position in the game.

I’m fully aware circumstances were different then as opposed to now. Monahan has given the Flames more depth down the middle, so it wasn’t as automatic to punch Bennett in right away. On top of that, the team is in a far more competitive spot right now after making the playoffs last season. The team likes him on the wing right now because they think he can help them in the short term more there than at centre.

First off, I don’t necessarily agree that he’s more effective on the wing, but we’ll get to that in the next segment. Second, and more importantly, Bennett’s development should still be the highest priority. Monahan got important reps down the middle in his inaugural campaign and it was huge for him in year two when he hit the ground running. There’s plenty of time left this season, which means plenty of time for Bennett to also get those important reps.

He can get the job done

Not only does having Bennett at centre work in the long term, it also helps you right now. He’s been just fine at worst and pretty effective at best when he’s been given the opportunity to play down the middle. The sample size is small, but it’s all we’ve got to go on right now.

This season, Bennett has played three games where he was used at centre, and in all three games he was a positive possession player, as you can see below courtesy war-on-ice.com.

Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 1.29.51 AM

In terms of his offensive zone starts in those three games, he was at 87.5% against Ottawa but down to 36.4% and 44.4% against Montreal and Edmonton, respectively. Any way you slice it, though, Bennett did the job and did it fairly well. Again, it’s a very small sample size, so it can’t necessarily win the argument singlehandedly, but it doesn’t fly in the face of it either.

I’m not saying Bennett is ready to take on the toughest minutes on the team and go toe-to-toe with Kopitar and Getzlaf here. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The Flames have the ability to shelter his minutes at centre while still giving him the time he needs at the position.

Monahan’s line with Johnny Gaudreau is generally going to see one of the opposing top two lines with Mikael Backlund being tasked to match up against the other. That leaves Bennett to face depth opposition which allows him to develop and make inevitable mistakes. But in this case, those mistakes aren’t always going to bite the team in a big way.

It’s an upgrade right now

Right this instant, I think Bennett is an upgrade for the Flames at centre ice. With Backlund, Monahan, and Matt Stajan installed, that leaves one spot open right now. That spot is currently being occupied by Markus Granlund, and I think Bennett is a more desirable option.

I don’t dislike Granlund and I still think he’s a decent NHL prospect, but right now he remains over his head. Despite the benefit of having the team’s highest offensive zone start at 65.41%, Granlund has the second worst possession rate on the team at 44.21% (worst among forwards). On a nightly basis, Granlund is outmatched by the same opposition we just talked about above.

Again, I’m not trying to skewer Granlund, because I think he’s slowly progressing. But right this instant, he’s the team’s worst centre, so why not replace him with Bennett? Not only does that help with Bennett’s development, it also takes a little pressure off of Granlund’s shoulders. On top of that, Granlund is a speedy, not overly physical player with a really good shot. I don’t think it’s out of the question he might be an okay fit on the wing, despite the team’s reticence to go down that road.

Most importantly, Bennett is a cornerstone of Calgary’s future while Granlund is not. Granlund could be with this team going forward, but he could also be a decent asset to help the team upgrade in other areas. As such, Bennett displacing him at centre is just fine in my books. It’s a little more of a head scratcher the other way around.

I’m not overly confident the move I’ve just advocated for is going to happen anytime soon. The team seems to be pretty happy with Bennett on the wing, and after Wednesday, it would be tough to convince anyone to change anything. But in the big picture, I think Bennett at centre is the way to go. Giving him those minutes as a rookie could prove to be very important.

  • I’m not sure Granlund is an everyday NHLer yet period, but I don’t think he’ll ever make it as a center. I’m not sure why the team is insistent on trying him there this year. He was mostly a winger when he was called up in the past.

    • KACaribou

      I fully want Sam Bennett at center, but for the sake of discussion I`ll play devil`s advocate here:

      1) Is it good for the long term? A Sam Bennett that plays center is a Sam Bennett that’s the third man in on the forecheck, a Sam Bennett that’s covering for pinching defensemen instead of holding on to the puck down low. The argument could be made that while Sam is a great center, he’s an even better winger simply because wingers who bring his all around game are few and far between. Likewise, if you watch Hartley’s system carefully he asks wingers to be the “carry out” or “chip out” guys along the boards, is that where we want the small, weak Granlund? It’s not just Hartley’s system though, even Darryl’s sutter system promotes heavier players on the perimeter and the center’s job is decision-making through the middle. Sam Bennett plays a heavy game, perhaps the heaviest on the Calgary Flames for a skill guy.

      2) Bennett on Backlund’s wing is a guy you can roll for 17-20 minutes if need be. 3rd line center Sam Bennett is a guy who’ll be limited to 11, 12 minutes a game. Is that an upgrade now?

      3) There’s a (slightly) bigger sample size of Sam at center this year. At minimum I recall a game against the Avalanche (Gaudreau-Bennett-Jones?) and a game against the Blues (Frolik-Bennett-Raymond).

      • The Fall

        You make sense and I mostly agree. However the thing that does need working out now – is his power play role. That will give him more minutes even if they try him at center. Steinberg is right – his ultimate development is a priority this year, just what is that exactly.

      • Scoring_guru

        Totally agree! Why keeping making changes on the lines when the combos playing against Florida worked well!

        Bennett on Backlund’s wing is working and we are short of great RWs.

    • everton fc

      I don’t remember Granlund on the wing in the past. Perhaps he’s being “showcased”?

      I think the Flames will make a play for one of Hayes/Drouin/Rychel/Hamonic at some point (boy, could the Oilers use Hamonic!) Perhaps Granlund, and maybe Hudler, are part of a package being prepared?? Of course, I know nothing – pure speculation – but I am convinced we’ll make a move and head into the playoffs in very good shape. Especially if Ramo keeps playing like Kipper did his first full season! (Bernier for Hiller would have been a nice move, but how did Hiller look vs. the Panthers?)

      And didn’t Bennett score the 4 goals on the wing, with Backlund??

  • smith

    Looking back to that BOA game, that was also the game McDavid (-2, no points) was neutralized to the point of being a zero factor, which Bennett received plenty of praise for if I remember correctly? As well Bennett did get an assist in that game I believe feeding the puck to Brodie from behind the net for a PP goal.

    Wonder how long it takes McDavid to score a hattrick in one period..ha!

  • aflame13

    Re: Granlund at center. Has he always played center? In Finland when he was with his brother? I seem to remember hearing they didn’t play much together but just curious. He seems like a much better option on the wing, and his center experience would help him be a bit more defensively responsible than your average skilled winger I’d hope.

  • Scoring_guru

    Why not put Bennett at centre with Gaudreau as both have great instincts and speed and drop Sean back to the 2nd line? Keep Ferland on the top line for a big body and a hard shot. I think Frolik would work well with Monahan. Backland takes 3rd spot and Stajan roles with the four line. Grandlund should be moved to the wing as he has been over matched ever time he is on the ice.

    • KACaribou

      I actually like this idea, and it’s so weird to me that when the team isn’t playing well, Hartley goes Hartley and just throws the lines in to a blender. 2nd/3rd/4th lines get completely changed around, and then we see numerous different guys get a shot at RW on the 1st. But we have never seen Johnny and Mony split up. I’m not saying they need to do that now, it’s just curious why the coaches feel those two need to be attached at the hip.

      I would love to see what Bennett could do at centre with Johnny and Ferly on his wings.

      • Scoring_guru

        The game against Florida would have been the perfect time to try Sam at centre and Jonny on his wing in the 3rd period. Once the game is locked down, see what those 2 can do together. I don’t imagine we are going to see many games where the Flames are leading by 4 goals after 1 period or 5 goals after 2 periods.

  • The Fall

    Sam as a no 2 centre makes sense. Frolik and Hudler on his wings will be a tough match up for most teams.

    Backs as a third line centre is more suited to his skill set.

  • JBudd

    I agree this needs to happen at some point but I would be hesitant to breakup the current line. Backlund and Bennett are showing chemistry and there is no way to have them on a line together if Bennett is playing center. When a line scores 4 beautiful goals in a game they stay together.

    • Toofun

      I agree, probably a good idea at some point but not right now.

      The entire team just played what might have been their best, most complete game of the year, with even Raymond and Bollig looking good out there. So this probably isn’t the right time to put forward another major change to the line up.

    • supra steve

      I get that many feel that Backlund contributed to the success of Bennett against the Cats. He was responsible for the transition game, for sure. Was he instrumental in any of the goals Sam potted? I have trouble seeing that. Not a Backlund hater, but let’s be realistic; he plays well defensively but struggles on offense, mostly his finish.

      How many games did Bennett play with Backlund and not score? Quite a few. Bennett and Frolik showed more chemistry than Bennett with Backlund. Hudler made two plays to feed Sam for goals, so there is that.

      Ideally, Granlund plays on Backlund’s wing, and starts in the D-zone. That will at least provide a good shut down 3rd line, and it might help get Granlund shoot more at the net.

      • DestroDertell

        I want Bennett to be a C myself, but this is a stupid argument.

        This season, Bennett has been on the ice for 9 ES goals for in 175 minutes he has played with Backlund. Without the latter, the former has been on the ice for 11 ES goals for in 340 minutes. Do the math real quick and you’ll notice Bennett + Backlund has been far more effective offensively than Bennett – Backlund.

        • KACaribou

          So, 4 of those goals came in one game. That leaves about 5 goals in 160 minutes with. The problem with stats is that don’t tell the full story. How many games have you seen Backlund lob a puck at the goalie? How many times has Sam drive to the net but had nobody there to finish it?

          One game does not justify leaving this as the go-to combo. Perhaps Hudler had more reason for the results in the last game. Perhaps Granlund is not a great fit, and results in less production.

          Put Backlund where he belongs; shutting down teams on the 3rd line. Give Bennett capable wingers like Frolik and somebody like Hudler and watch him perform.

          • DestroDertell

            If you’re going to pick the data that way, I can re-formulate my post this way:

            “This season, before last game, Bennett has been on the ice for 6 ES goals for in 163 minutes he has played with Backlund. Without the latter, the former has been on the ice for 9 ES goals for in 339 minutes. Do the math real quick and you’ll notice Bennett + Backlund has been far more effective offensively than Bennett – Backlund.”

            More-or-less the same thing.

        • aflame13

          But not more effective than Bennett + Gaudreau. The most effective line the Flames have assembled this season–by far–was Gaudreau – Bennett – Frolik. For some reason, it only lasted four periods before Frolik was replaced by Jones, and later Jooris. But those were all effective lines territorially (and not one game went by without at least one point from Bennett; though there were only four because Hartley had the brilliant idea to move Bennett over so Monahan could play with them. Then, after that line didn’t click instantly Hartley forgot what he was doing and Bennett was stapled to Backlund’s hip for the next several games. He went a bit cold, so he spent eighteen games with Markus Granlund, where he disappeared from the scoresheet altogether).

          • DestroDertell

            I know. I did the WOWY between the two and I saw they have a 55 CF% together albeit in a small sample size. I’d like to see that Gaudreau – Bennett – Frolik line again as well.

            I just find the comment about how Backlund is a offensive blackhole facepalm-worthy when he has a GF60 of 2.43 in the past two years (with a poor QoT), which is above-average by flames standard.

          • DestroDertell

            Ah. Well, Backlund generally pushes the play forward so much that he can’t help but contribute on the offensive side. But he’s not going to score on too many of his own shots (if his career to date is any indication) and he’s no shot% driver either (though those are rare).

          • KACaribou

            Under Hartley, Backlund has a SH% of 8.84% over 213 Games, which is a pretty decent sample size.

            If that’s an offensive black hole, then so are fellow forwards Daniel Sedin, Sean Coutourier, Mikko Koivu, Henrik Zetterberg, Carl Soderberg, and Tomas Plekanec.

          • KACaribou

            Shooting percentage is an over-hyped stat. Hear me out.

            Ovenchkin leads the league in scoring. Isn’t that all that matters really?

            But… is he really that valuable to people who believe in the value of Shooting percentage?

            Ovechkin has taken 32% more shots that anyone else in the league. Yet he only has one more goal than Kane. Who believes Kane is a better scorer?

            Do we penalize Ovechkin for taking so many shots and scoring on so few (26) or think less of him because his shooting percentage is far below many other top scorers?

            I don’t. I think he’s the best scorer in the league… and for years. But that’s because I don’t believe in the value of shooting percentage. He knows if he shoots a lot he will score a lot.

            Some guys are more selective and have a higher shooting percentage due to that. Maybe because they are shiftier. Almost certainly because they have weaker shots. Regardless, they score less.

            Ovechkin 12% Shooting Percentage
            Crosby 10%

            Johnny Hockey 16.4%
            Patrick Kane 15.24

            The bottom line is always scoring. Alex Tanguay never shoots. We know that. This year is worse that ever. 2G in only 30SOG. If he had 10 goals he’d have a 33% shooting percentage. Yet he’d only have 10 goals!

          • smith

            I am sorry, but I have no idea what you are trying to prove. The best scorers are obviously those who score most. The best combination of generating shots and shooting percentage.

          • KACaribou

            Well I thought it was pretty obvious to most people but for you I will try to explain more simply; considering you have no idea what I am “trying to prove.”

            Many here seem to think shooting percentage means the best shooters. It doesn’t.

            Many of us understand that. The above was to explain why that is the case. If you would like to know, please read it. For those who want to ignore this, no problem either.

  • Scoring_guru

    Agree, I also think getting Bennett away from Granlund and Colborne helped a lot last game. He has probably been are best forward behind Gaudreau all season and putting him at center lets him position wise, move all around the ice more and in all 4 corners. I wouldn’t doubt he’d have more points if he was at center also. Common Bennett over Granlund should be a no brainer.

  • T&A4Flames

    The only reason it makes sense to keep Granlund at C is either to have him gain some recognition as a potential good C to use in a trade. Or, testing him to see if he could possibly replace Backlund and then move Backlund in a trade.

    Like many of you have said, Bennett over Granlund at C seems like a no brainer.

  • KACaribou

    Agree with you Spreadsheet, but is Sam ready yet? If we make him centre, we might just as well put him on the top line where he ultimately belongs:

    Johnny Hockey – Sam Bennett – Michael Ferland

    Jari Hudler – Sean Monahan – Michael Frolik

    Mason Raymond – Michael Backlund – David Jones

    Markus Granlund – Matt Stajan – Josh Jooris

    Injured Bouma comes in, Raymond shifts down; Granlund, Colborne, Bollig

    My only reservation is Monahan is really starting to be a good faceoff guy and Bennett predictably may struggle there for a period of time.

  • supra steve

    Well, I’m sure glad Hartley’s coaching, not some of you all.

    Put Bennett (3 NHL games at C) on the first line with Gaudreau? Perhaps other teams will follow suit and put some of their inexperienced players out against them? Either that or Bennett just gets murdered by the other teams best shut-down units.

    Which do you think it will be?

    Ultimately those two end up together, but Bennett needs some time to reach that level.

  • FeyWest

    I think we’ll see him there sooner than later, I don’t know if it was mentioned here yet but with Frolik close to being ready I know Hartley had Bennett practicing at center with Frolik and Hudler (I believe?). It’s going to happen just probably not right away during the BoA game tomorrow given the Florida success.

  • supra steve

    This season, Bennett has played three games where he was used at centre, and in all three games he was a positive possession player, as you can see below courtesy war-on-ice.com.

    Bennett has actually played eight games at center this year, not three. His Corsi for % was 56% in those eight games (and he had 6 points).