What should the Flames do with Sam Bennett?

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.

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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. 

The Issues

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.

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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.

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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.

The solution

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:

Matthew Tkachuk-Mikael Backlund-Michael Frolik

Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-Sam Bennett

Kris Versteeg-Matt Stajan-Troy Brouwer

Micheal Ferland-Freddie Hamilton-Alex Chiasson

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.

      • flames2015

        Dallas mostly has Seguin playing RW but will put him at center here and there. He’s been extremly successful there. I don’t get why everyone is so adament that just because we drafted benett as a centre, that he has to be just that. Yes, he tore it up in juniors but maybe he just doesn’t have it at the nhl level for that position. If he could double his output by playing the wing, and be a constant producer then let him be a winger.

        And for those wanting benett to centre johnny and mony. Benett doesn’t win face offs, and that line gets the most ozone starts so you are basically killing their shift by having them waste it with puck retrieval

      • OKG

        Seguin was playing mostly centre from his second year on. He was also traded for pennies on the dollar to a team willing to give him a chance in the top 6 at C. I am sure trading Bennett is not in our best interest.

    • Rockmorton65

      Less responsibility. Helps him get his mojo back. Less pressure until he does. Then, gradually, give him more responsibility until the end of the season.

  • TurkeyLips

    It would hurt to pry Ferland from #13 and #23’s line. He is obviously pretty skilled and needs the confidence too. If Bennett is projected to be a future center he should remain learning the intricacies of the position.

    Monahan seems like the perfect mentor, bulked up a ton to meet the strenuous demands NHL centers endure, he seems to know what kind of work it takes. Slumped to start the season and now he’s back to being a force.

    Bennett needs to bulk up, that fight showed his inner tenacity we all read about in his draft year, but his frame needs help. Once the kid completes his early male pattern “Getzlaf” baldness, and adds some muscle, he’ll come into his own.

    As to how to develop him between now and then…the path isn’t clear but putting him on wing would encourage “soft” traits and while it’d help his point production it might ultimately hamper his long-term development.

  • Kevin R

    Until last night, I was not just beating but Harvey the Hound pounding the drum to take a chance, move Tkachuk to the right wing with Monahan & Gaudreau & put Bennett on the LW with Backlund & Frolik. After last night, I really want to keep Ferland up with Gaudreau & Monahan. Ferland is more than capable of defending Gaudreau. If he plays like that, I can stop fantasizing about getting Simmonds.

    Pitt is in a bind with another Dman down, can we get a 2nd for Jokkipakka? I’ve given up on moving Wideman.

  • everton fc

    I don’t see them moving Tkachuk off that 1st line. And I don’t see them splitting up Gaudreau-Monahan-Ferland after last nights game. Ferland did so much. He’s also a very under-rated playmaker. And his aggressive games seems a good fit w/Gaudreau.

    Bennett’s going to play centre. I think Versteeg and Brouwer will be his wings. How that pans out, time will tell. Sending Freddie down does nothing – he’s played well when he’s been called upon. In fact, he’s played a rather aggressive game, which is what we need up here.

  • OKG

    Oh one more think Bennett is producing at the same even strength rates as Backlund did at age ~24 etc. Bennett is 20. Backlund was not even in the NHL at this age. I love Backlund but prime Bennett will be even better. You don’t ignore that to get a quick fix at LW. Another parallel Backlund was anchored by Bouma and Bennett is anchored by Brouwer/Chiasson.

  • Parallex

    I do think he’s in a bit of a pickle as far as complementary players go… the best two-way guys are all on the Backlund line and the most potent point production players are all on the Monahan line and those two pick up the bulk of special team play. So Bennett is kind of stuck with the leftovers. That being said you’d hope that the highest pick in franchise history would be the one elevating his linemates not the guy needing to be elevated.

    Really it comes down to what you want Sam Bennett to be and how long you’re willing to wait. I assume the preference is essentially that folk want him to be a more dynamic version of Backlund… Well it took Backs 5/6 years to become what he is. I think we’ll be rewarded with that (a more dynamic Backlund) if we give him the time and make him earn it. If you’re not willing to wait that long and want the point production right now then it’s time to move him to the wing where he can focus more on that. I’d rather keep him on his current track.