Fourth overall is the highest the Calgary Flames have ever selected in the NHL draft. So when their 2013-14 season went so poorly – kind of by design – there was a fair bit of expectation to get a good player out of it. Especially because in 2014, four players were identified as being the top of the draft class, and so the Flames were guaranteed to get one of them.
Enter: Sam Bennett, who received first overall rankings throughout his draft year and fell to fourth, probably at least in part by secretly needing shoulder surgery for some time. He looked to justify those high standards when he played in the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs, a high-caliber player who seemed a natural fit even though he was an 18-year-old who had just missed the entire season due to the aforementioned shoulder surgery.
He’s shown lots of promise and potential since then, but it hasn’t yet come together. Now, set to sign his second contract at a time the Flames are building up to become a perennial playoff team, what’s next?
It’s a possibility Bennett will be traded – but it’s not likely. As Elliotte Friedman indicated in his 30 Thoughts column (#16):
One exec indicated Calgary told them, “We’re not interested in plugging one hole by opening another.” So, if it happens, it’s going to be expensive.
The only way Bennett actually moves is if it’s to make the team better than he himself possibly could – and the book is still out on him and what he can do. Let’s remember that Bennett, as a teenager, established himself as an NHLer. Is it disappointing he only has 63 career points to date? Yes, but it’s not like that happens to any old scrub. And he was chosen at fourth overall for a reason: he likely has more to offer, and selling low on him now is not a good way to find that out down the road.
And then there’s the point Friedman’s anonymous executive made: if the Flames trade Bennett, they don’t exactly have anyone to replace him. There’s Mark Jankowski and… uh… Mark Jankowski? The Flames look pretty good down the middle in part because Bennett is there to make it so. Trading him away to upgrade the defence or goaltending really hurts the forward group, and needlessly at that. It just doesn’t make sense from any angle.
Down on the fourth line
Bennett played a bit on the Flames’ fourth line as the season was nearing its end. It was a bad idea then and would be an even worse idea for next season. Even if he’s slumping or whatever, that isn’t fixed by having one of your core pieces play with, like, Troy Brouwer. Again. Sure, Bennett has to create his own luck and be better on his own – but that’s going to be a tough ask if he’s given barely any ice time and low quality linemates.
Mikael Backlund looked a hell of a lot better with Michael Frolik on his line, not Brian McGrattan.
On the wing
It’s certainly easy to see the Flames go this route, but it may not be the best move.
Bennett is listed as both a centre and left winger. He has had most of his success in the NHL when playing on Backlund’s wing – but that’s probably more to do with playing on a line with Backlund than it is about playing the wing instead of centre.
The Flames really don’t have too many ideal options at the centre position, so taking away from the team’s centre depth to create more depth on the left wing – or to put it another way, taking from a weaker position to add to probably the strongest one – doesn’t seem like the most sensible move. It would only really make sense if the Flames wanted Jankowski playing centre in the NHL now, immediately, and Matt Stajan not taken by Vegas and still on the Flames – and really, there’s no need to give Stajan more responsibility just to force in a prospect like that. (Or to move Bennett to the wing before Stajan, even.)
One way in which moving Bennett to the wing theoretically could work is if he ends up playing alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.
But again: that still takes away from the Flames’ centre depth. And as that anonymous executive said, it doesn’t sound as though the Flames want to do that.
Up on the first line
As multiple players slumped through Glen Gulutzan’s first season, he wasn’t afraid to break up some of the sacred cow pairings. Not Backlund and Frolik – let’s not get crazy here – but Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie were split for much of the year.
Breaking up Gaudreau and Monahan was played with as well, as Bennett ended up centring Gaudreau for some time. The duo played 191:22 5v5 minutes together. They combined on all of four goals, displaying some chemistry but not much in the way of actual results.
It could be worth exploring again – but it’s not as though Gulutzan should have any reason to break up Gaudreau and Monahan to start next season, as both should (hopefully) not miss any training camp, plus they’re actually familiar with the new system by now. They’re still the team’s top two scorers, and messing with that in hopes of creating something else doesn’t seem like the approach to take at the moment.
Though I suppose there’s the possibility of having Monahan play on the wing instead…
This is where Bennett played most of his 2016-17 season, and where he seems likely to end up again. He would probably start off as the team’s third line centre, especially if the 3M line remains intact, but this could be flexible throughout the season – especially if things finally click for Bennett and he starts showing, on a regular basis, just why he was taken fourth overall.
What will be really interesting is just who Bennett’s linemates end up being, though, and they could go a long way towards determining how much ice time Bennett ends up with (and how many points he ends up scoring, at that). He, Alex Chiasson, and Kris Versteeg all clicked at the end of the season, but you’d hope the Flames could do a little better for Bennett (plus, it’s no guarantee Chiasson and Versteeg will even be back next season).
We’re all thinking it, though: Bennett with Ferland and Tkachuk could be a hell of a line. And if the Flames can pick up a first line winger and simply graduate a prospect to play with Backlund and Frolik, well, it would only be natural to try it out.
What’s going to happen?
I suspect Bennett will start as the Flames’ third line centre. I hope he gets an upgrade in linemates, but that remains to be seen. It would be ideal for him, though – as it would be for him to come into his own this upcoming season.