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.
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.