There was a lot of excitement when Sam Bennett was first drafted. Taken fourth overall, he became the highest pick in Flames franchise history – and this was a guy who was ranked as the number one prospect for 2014 at the time. A bit smaller, a lot younger, but someone who could score and agitate like nobody’s business; the second coming of Doug Gilmour. A potential first line centre – and wouldn’t that be someone to go with an organization that already had Sean Monahan? Years of having no centre depth, and suddenly, completely fixed over the course of two drafts.
Except thanks to a hurt shoulder, the Flames didn’t get to indulge in their shiny new toy right away. That had to wait for surgery, recovery, rehabilitation – by then it was February. You’re not going to burn a year of a contract that early nor thrust an untested kid into a mid-season NHL playoff chase, so it was back to the OHL, where he resumed lighting it up.
Kingston’s season ended before the Flames’. Game 82 was meaningless, so Bennett got to make his NHL debut. And as someone clearly deserving, he got to make his playoff debut, too.
Four points in 11 games and a maturity well beyond his years, he was enthralling to watch. He initiated the play that led to the Flames’ Game 1 winner over Vancouver. Two games later, he scored his first playoff goal: a go-ahead at the time; one that ended up being the game-winner when all was said and done. The very next game, another insurance goal. And one more to prevent a shutout – and that’s not even counting when he got Martin Gelinas’d against Anaheim in round two.
Those playoff games were like a glimpse into the future. This is what you have to look forward to. This kid is a gamer, and you are going to love him.
His rookie season didn’t quite follow that path. Bennett put up 36 points in 77 games – comparable to Monahan’s rookie year, but especially hit hard by a lack of consistent linemates. He had a four-goal game against the Florida Panthers to hint that playoff performer was still in there, but otherwise, it was a season that didn’t quite live up to expectations.
Until this season. While Bennett’s rookie season was respectable, his sophomore year went off the rails. He only scored 26 points in 81 games, a far cry from what his potential seemed to be. He spent most of the year outside of the top six, a tweener on a dysfunctional team that couldn’t get anything going for itself, and not much the beneficiary of powerplay time or even quality linemates. Combine that with the number of boneheaded penalties taken – no indications of being a pest, just stupid mistakes – and, well, he’s only 20, but he was also a fourth overall pick, and talks of “bust” started to rise.
At least right up until he started centring Kris Versteeg and Alex Chiasson late in the regular season, and suddenly looked a lot better. Not like an elite offensive player, mind you, but better. Functional, contributing, a threat.
And then the playoffs started, and he suited up for his second go – and it was exactly like the 18-year-old who first graced himself on the big stage.
Bennett only has two goals through these three games, but it feels like he could have a lot more. He has been nigh impossible to contain. His overall numbers haven’t been anything eyepopping – a 49.30% 5v5 CF with 62.50% offensive zone starts – but this is, perhaps, where the eye test itself really favours him (or at least, by my eyes it has). Between Bennett and Versteeg, the Flames have found their best players of these playoffs to date, both fighting for every single scrap they can get – Bennett in particular bringing a more physical edge that has seen him do everything from wipe out Ducks to win puck battles and create scoring chances out of nothing. He’s noticeable – in mostly good ways – virtually every time he’s on the ice, and he’s only eighth in forward ice time.
These have been a rough playoffs overall, but the ultimate silver lining to all of this has to be Bennett’s play. If he can keep it up going into next season – admittedly an “if” made stronger by how this past year has played out – then the Flames will be well on their way to having three dangerous lines, if they aren’t there already.