If you’re anything like me, you expected Sam Bennett to take a big step forward this year. I’ve said more than once that I think Bennett has a higher ceiling than Sean Monahan.
For justifiable reasons, I think: Bennett is a better skater, is more tenacious and is a better puck handler. The Flames’ highest draft pick ever was dominant in junior (despite suffering through a shoulder problem in his draft year) and was considered by some as a talent potentially worthy of going first overall.
Unfortunately, like Monahan, Bennett has more or less run in place this year. He’s on pace to score fewer points than he did as a rookie (34 vs. 36), has been permanently bumped from the Flames’ powerplay, and currently centres a line that struggles at even strength. There’s really nothing in his game to be excited about right now.
So what’s to be done with Sam Bennett?
How bad is it?
This is especially relevant because Bennett is struggling through perhaps his worst stretch of the season. In his last 15 games, Bennet has just three points (all goals) and just 27 shots on net (1.8 per game).
The underlying numbers are equally poor. Over that period of time, Bennett’s shot attempt, scoring chance and goal differentials at even strength are at -91, -71 and -7, respectively. In terms of ratios, that is a CF of 47%, SCF 43% and GF of 46%.
So with Bennett on the ice, the Flames are getting soundly outshot, outchanced and outscored. Since the clock ticked over to 2017, the Bennett line has pretty consistently been the worst line night in and night out in terms of possession.
So it’s bad by math. And by eye, too. Bennett is visibly frustrated and ineffective most nights. The creativity he’s flashed in spurts since coming into the league is notably dormant. His decision making is hesitant and suboptimal. He is still aggressive, but only in fits and starts and is still prone to taking bad offensive zone penalties. He also hasn’t figured out the defensive side of the puck at even strength, so his line is prone to getting hemmed into the Flames zone for long spells.
What are the options?
Let’s start with the options we have and explore them a bit more throughly afterwards:
1.) Drop Bennett to the fourth line.
2.) Get Bennett a play-driving linemate.
3.) Move Bennett to the wing.
4.) Status quo (let him play through it).
Sean Monahan struggling at the same time makes Glen Gulutzan’s life a bit more complicated. Right now GG is burying the Backlund and Matt Stajan lines and giving Monahan as many offensive zone starts as possible. That leaves Bennett’s line whatever’s left in the middle.
Here’s how the usage shakes out:
(On this chart: the further right the player, the more offensive zone face offs he gets. The higher up he is, the tougher his competition).
As you can see, the Monahan line gets the easiest ratio of zone starts, but at least Bennett is still above 50%.
What’s curious here is how relatively undifferentiated the top three lines (and top two defensive units) are in terms of quality of competition.
In contrast, here’s how Boston’s usage chart looks. I picked them because they have a similarly dominant ES line to Backlund’s unit in Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak:
Although the Bergeron unit gets the high ground a bit more than Backlund, you can also see they are the clear leaders on the team in terms of tough matchups. This is probably something GG should concentrate a bit more on moving forward.
This brings us to option 1 – dropping Bennett to the fourth line. That would mean elevating Stajan in order to give Bennett the easiest minutes possible as he finds his footing. In context of the discussion above, that would mean bumping Stajan’s quality of competition, but likely keeping him in the same area zone start-wise.
While this doesn’t put Bennett in a position to get more ice time or points, it does give him a chance to refine his game and get some confidence against third and fourth liners. It also means the Flames don’t have a third line getting its clock cleaned every night, which is of concern since the team is pushing for a playoff spot.
Here’s what the roster might look like as a result:
- Tkachuk – Backlund – Frolik
- Gaudreau – Monahan – Chiasson
- Ferland – Stajan – Versteeg
- Bouma – Bennett – Hathaway
Of course, there is also the risk of this move sinking Bennett’s confidence even further. A bump down the rotation to play with grinders in a limited role means less chance to impact the game. Nevertheless, the fourth line is where a majority of kids and hopefuls find themselves at the start of their career, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented.
Option 2, get Bennett a play-driving linemate, sounds more appealing until you consider what it would require. Technically, GG has tried this already by playing Ferland with Bennett. Prior to landing on Bennett’s wing, Ferland was one of the Flames’ best possession players this year outside of the Backlund line. Unfortunately, he has sunk right along with Bennett since being elevated.
The only other options are moving one of Frolik or Tkachuk to play with Bennett, which would mean breaking up the highly effective 3M unit. We’ve theorized previously this might be required given how much the rest of the Flames’ top nine has struggled this year, but it’s still a tough pill to swallow. The risk is you guarantee lowering the impact of the best even strength unit on the team, but you don’t know how much it will improve the Bennett unit.
Option 3 is perhaps the most obvious. In his rookie year, Bennett excelled on the wing with Backlund and Frolik, so returning him to LW seems to be a no-brainer. Shifting him to the flank also means Bennett doesn’t have to learn the difficult aspects of playing C at the NHL level right now, perhaps giving him time and space to rebuild his game.
Keep in mind, however, that Bennett pretty much ONLY excelled on the wing when playing with Backlund. The two of them have a CF of about 53% together, but Bennett’s results drop precipitously when playing with any other pivot: Monahan + Bennett (CF 43%), Stajan + Bennett (CF of 47.8%), Granlund + Bennett (CF of 43.9%)… none of these combinations drove play or scoring at even strength.
On top of all this, the organization is somewhat committed to developing Bennett as a C. Unless Mark Jankowski can leap into the show and bump Bennett to the wing, Calgary currently doesn’t have a long-term option to fill out the center depth. This is especially concerning from a roster building perspective given Monahan’s failure to meaningfully develop this year as well.
Option 4 seems like the least appealing initially, but it might be the only workable situation right now. If the team wants (needs?) Bennett to become a capable top six pivot, then it might just need to live through these growing pains right now and leave him where he is.
I assume this is the course GG will take. Aside from shuffling linemates a bit, Gulutzan will keep trying to get Bennett to find his footing in the Flames’ 3C position for now. The one thing he could do to help, I think, goes back to the usage chart above – get the Bennett line a more time against third and fourth lines and avoid the top rotation a bit more.
So what would you do with Bennett? Move him down, move him to the wing, give him Tkachuk/Frolik or just let him figure things out?