Sam Bennett is not having the season anyone hoped for.
The 2014 fourth overall pick – the highest pick in Flames franchise history – currently has 23 points in 73 games. This comes after a 36-point rookie season. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that – Sean Monahan had a 34-point rookie season, and then followed it up with 62 points as a sophomore. Bennett clearly had potential – he was fantastic in the 2015 playoffs – so he would break out in his second season too, right?
Well, that’s forgetting a crucial component: Monahan got Johnny Gaudreau to work with. Bennett has… not.
Sam Bennett’s linemates
Of course, it’s not as though all of Monahan’s success was derived from his linemates – Gaudreau and a still very functional Jiri Hudler – but it sure helped. Think back on how Mikael Backlund went from centring the fourth line and on the verge of the organization losing faith in him, to centring Lance Bouma and David Jones, (and scoring 27 points in 52 games), to Matthew Tkachuk and Michael Frolik (and sitting at 50 points in 74 games, and counting). Obviously some of that progression is simply due to Backlund’s growth as a player over the years – and remember, he didn’t start hitting half-a-point-per-game status until he was 23 – but a massive upgrade in linemates certainly helped. There’s only so much you can ask one player to do on his own.
Bennett’s most common linemates this season have been Troy Brouwer, Kris Versteeg, and Alex Chiasson: players with point per game ratios of .33, .47, and .29. He’s not exactly getting a Gaudreau-caliber player to play with on the regular. (Credit where credit is due in that it was tried; unfortunately, it came at a time when most of the team was a mess, though there was a hint of something there).
Via Corsica, here’s a WOWY chart of some of Bennett’s most common linemates over both this season and last:
The size of the circles represents the amount of ice time Bennett has spent with each player. So those tiny little blue dots aligned with Tkachuk, Matt Stajan, and Monahan indicate Bennett hasn’t spent that much ice time with either of those three players – so we shouldn’t read too much into something like how much better his CF values were alongside Tkachuk (though it could be something to note for the future, should the 3M line ever be broken up).
Most obviously, he’s been missing Frolik and Backlund, and there was a noticeable jump in his game when he was slotted alongside them for Tkachuk’s two-game suspension. He’s done alright alongside Gaudreau and Versteeg, though both players appear to be better away from him; Chiasson has been one of his best linemates all season (and they work well together on the penalty kill), but Chiasson isn’t quite the caliber of player you want to see playing regularly alongside a fourth overall pick.
It’s definitely a down year for the 20-year-old, but there are a couple of things we can’t ignore: he’s only 20, and his best regular linemate this season has been Chiasson.
Bennett’s original linemates to start the year were Tkachuk and Brouwer. Tkachuk probably would have ended up working out – and still very well might in the near future; they’re close in age – while Brouwer has not.
But when you look at the way the Flames are currently set up, with Micheal Ferland having established himself in a top offensive role, there’s simply nobody available who could probably actively help Bennett or give him a boost. The best possible wingers for him are Versteeg and Chiasson; in recent games at centre he’s played alongside Bouma and Curtis Lazar.
There’s only so much one can ask of a player. Backlund, at 25, managed to be a .52 point per game guy alongside Bouma and Jones. He’d played about 250 games before that season started. Virtually the same thing is being asked of Bennett, five years younger and with 78 games played before this season. That’s a tall order for just about anybody in those circumstances.
Two things are required with Bennett. Number one is patience.
And number two is the ability to get him a good winger. The Flames still need at least one more impact forward, and it’s Bennett who needs him the most.