With just one goal and two points in his last 22 games, Sam Bennett is in another prolonged scoring slump. Now in his second full season with the Calgary Flames, Bennett continues to struggle with offensive inconsistency as he adapts to playing centre at the highest level. The Flames project Bennett as a centre long term, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he should be playing down the middle right now.
It’s not like Bennett has been bad in his first two NHL seasons, because the numbers below are respectable as a 19 and 20-year-old player.
Again, Bennett hasn’t been markedly terrible and nor have his numbers, but he also hasn’t jumped off the page the way so many of us had hoped after his really strong 2016 preseason. Bennett has struggled with the two-way responsibilities of an NHL centre at times and it has certainly taken away from his productivity. So what should Calgary do for the rest of the season? To answer that, let’s take a deeper look.
Far more often than not, Bennett has looked over his head down the middle this season. Playing fairly sheltered minutes as the team’s number three centre, Bennett hasn’t been able to generate sustained offence on a consistent basis and, thus, has spent too much time in his own end for the role he’s being asked to play. A quick look at his underlying numbers will confirm what a lot of us have seen this year.
Among regular forwards, only Kris Versteeg, Sean Monahan, Alex Chiasson, and Johnny Gaudreau have seen more offensive starts than Bennett has. He’s been given plenty of opportunity to succeed at even strength, which is why those mediocre possession numbers are even more concerning
By the eye test, my biggest complaint in Bennett’s game has been his decision making inside the offensive blueline. There’s no doubting how skilled he is, but right now, that skill isn’t shining through as often as it should. Bennett gains the zone at a decent clip, but once he’s there, his puck distribution lacks and a lot of potential cycles will die due to an errant pass or an easy interception.
What remains to be seen is whether Bennett is going through normal growing pains when acclimating to NHL speed or if this is a bigger issue in how he thinks the game. Reads and decisions at the highest level need to be made instantaneously and it looks like that is still something Bennett is adjusting to. At this point, I’m not ready to say this is a long term issue, but Calgary is going to want to see some improvement in this area over the next couple seasons.
There’s another area where Bennett is lagging behind in year number two, too: faceoffs. Among regular centres on the Flames, Bennett has had the worst season in the faceoff dot.
Of course, faceoffs are only a small part of what a centre is asked to take care of, but that doesn’t change the fact Bennett is going to need to get better in this area. Monahan, for instance, has gradually gotten better in the dot to the point where he’s now top 25 overall in the category. Inevitably, the best centres in the league are usually among the best at taking draws, too, so it’s something Bennett needs to aspire to.
I concede much of this analysis might seem a little harsh for a 20-year-old in his second full NHL year. So, because balance is important, let’s not forget that players develop at different rates. Just because Bennett isn’t where Monahan was in year two or where Matthew Tkachuk is in year one doesn’t mean he’s not going to get where the Flames want him to be at eventually.
I’ll also say I haven’t minded Bennett’s game in other areas. I’m just fine with his defensive game away from the puck and don’t worry very often about decisions made inside his own blueline. Bennett’s biggest challenge now will be to spend less time in his own end, but the fact his defensive reads are solid gives me hope the offensive side of the brain will follow in the near future.
It’s a simple fix for me: put Bennett on the wing for the rest of this season. He wants to score and admittedly gets down on himself when he doesn’t. Well, shifting Bennett away from centre takes a ton of pressure and responsibility off his shoulders. He won’t have to worry about being the primary entry man and making those quick offensive decisions with the puck on his stick.
Instead, Bennett can use his speed on the outside to get to scoring areas and receive the puck on his stick to make a play. I’ve liked Bennett far more on the wing this season than I have down the middle, and if his offensive totals improve as a result, it’s a bonus for both the player and the team.
So how would the Flames go about making this work? Well, the first option would be to shuffle things around with the roster as it’s currently constructed. That would mean bumping Stajan up to be the team’s third centre and moving Freddie Hamilton to the middle of the fourth line. Personally, I don’t have a giant problem with either of those options right now and I don’t mind the look of lines like these:
Sure, Stajan’s offensive upside isn’t where Bennett’s is, but the former is still a very deft passer and could be a nice fit with Versteeg. Putting Bennett with Monahan and Gaudreau would ensure continued offensive high ground and would put him in a great spot to start feeling better about his scoring game. Finally, I don’t mind Hamilton as Calgary’s number four centre right now as he’s done just fine in a defensively slanted role throughout this season.
If the Flames were to not feel comfortable with something like I’ve suggested above, there’s always the possibility of outside help. Calgary is definitely still shopping for another forward, and if that were to be another centre, they’d open up the door to easily shift Bennett to the wing. Either or, I think shifting Bennett from the middle is a very realistic proposition.
In the long run, I still like the idea of Bennett as a centre, even with his hiccups this season, mainly because it would be such a luxury for the team. With the way offence has been a struggle, though, I wonder if getting him into a groove on the wing first isn’t the way to make that happen. If so, Bennett certainly wouldn’t be the first guy to drive that road.