Sam Bennett, at fourth overall, is the highest draft pick in Calgary Flames history. He was a highly touted talent in his draft year, with some projections naming him as a potential first overall choice.
The hype wasn’t unwarranted. Bennett managed 36 goals and 91 points for the OHL Kingston Frontenacs in a season where he grappled with a wonky shoulder. Bennet’s draft+1 year was shortened by shoulder surgery, but he still managed 11 goals and 24 points in just 11 games played during the regular season, a 2.18 point-per-game pace.
When he was picked, Bennett instantly became Calgary’s best prospect and was considered a bluechip addition to a young, emerging core. At just 19 he joined the Flames for their Cinderella playoff run and never went to the minors or back to junior.
Two years into his career and things haven’t gone as planned for Bennett. His debut was a good but not great rookie season that saw him score 18 goals and 36 points through struggles with inconsistency and the demands of the center ice position in the NHL.
Of course, development isn’t necessarily a straight line and not every guy treads the same path in the NHL. Bennett is entering his third NHL season and second contract, meaning both the player and team need to start getting a better feel for what he’ll be at this level.
There are three options for Bennett and the Flames this year: move to wing, stay in the middle, or make a trade.
The issue at hand is Bennett’s much-anticipated step forward as a sophomore never occurred.
In fact, Bennett spent the season on Calgary’s third line and was unable to rise above the dual demands of playing pivot and dragging along Troy Brouwer. For large parts of the season, Bennett’s line was often the worst on any given night for the Flames, getting handily outshot and out chanced at even strength. The player went through long pointless droughts and likely would have been a candidate to be sent to the AHL if he wasn’t, you know, “Sam Bennett”.
None of the results Bennett put up last year were better than mediocre, representing a solid step back from his rookie season. While some of that may be playing a lot with Brouwer or struggling to learn the game down the middle, it nevertheless raises the question of whether Bennett is going to develop into an impact player or not.
Sometimes highly touted guys never really fulfill their potential, instead settling into okay, middle rotation guys. This is the case with high picks like Ryan Strome (fifth overall) or Josh Bailey (ninth overall). On the other hand, sometimes it takes a bit longer for some guys to find their feet, like Kyle Turris or Nino Niederreiter. Right now, we can’t be sure which path Bennett will take.
For now, here’s how the path diverges for the player and the team this year.
Stay at center
Quality centermen are both high impact and high value commodities in the league. That’s no doubt why Brad Treliving continues to say the team is committed to developing Bennett down the middle. If he can become a better than average C, the Flames will have enviable organizational depth down the middle with Bennett, Mikael Backlund, and Sean Monahan.
That said, the player hasn’t shown much aptitude for the position at this level yet. Bennett isn’t great defensively, doesn’t distribute the puck overly well, and isn’t a coveted “big body”. He has also struggled to win faceoffs (averaging about 46% in his career so far). On top of all that, Bennett’s best string of games to date came on the left wing with Backlund.
Now, maybe these are the symptoms of a young kid trying to acclimate to the best league in the world. Or maybe it means Bennett is never going to be an effective guy down the middle.
Move to left wing
Shifting Bennett back to LW could accomplish a couple of things: it may improve the team’s somewhat lackluster winger depth and it will lower the developmental demands on the player, given that left wing is an easier position to play.
That said, it also causes new problems. Shifting Bennett opens a new hole down the middle, which the club would have to hope can be filled by a combination of Matt Stajan, Curtis Lazar, and/or Mark Jankowski. Stajan is probably best deployed as a fourth liner at this point and the other two guys are basically unknown commodities. Solving the Bennett problem may just create a new, bigger one with this solution.
Trade for a more accomplished player
Bennett’s trade value and market perception are at a crossroads. While his sophomore performance probably hasn’t improved his stock, his age and pedigree likely ensure he would still be a valuable asset if the team decided to put him on the block.
That perception probably won’t survive another mediocre season, which means this summer could be Calgary’s last chance to trade on Bennett’s draft position and leverage the asset. Of course, it could also mean moving a highly talented impact player right before he was about to break out as well.
Perhaps the only way something like this works is moving Bennett for a future version of himself: for example, Colorado’s Matt Duchene, who was chosen third overall by the Avs in 2009. Duchene is 26 with eight NHL seasons under his belt, including five 20+ goal seasons and 50+ point seasons, including a high water mark 70 points in 2013-14.
Duchene’s value is at all time low after a bad season with a historically terrible Avalanche team last year, but we can assume given his history and age that he is probably better than he showed in 2016-17.
For context, here’s how the two players compare right now:
And here’s how they compare when Duchene was the same age:
Duchene has seen some fluctuations in the intervening years, but he has consistently put up better than average point totals (while also being consistently suspect defensively). In some ways, he kind of looks like what Bennett will grow up to be.
So Calgary can be fairly certain about the player they’d be receiving in a hypothetical trade for Duchene, whereas they can’t quite be certain what Bennett is yet. Behind one door is a future where Bennett as good or better than Duchene, given up for an older, more expensive, potentially less effective guy.
Behind another door is a future where Bennett never really takes the next step and plateaus as a middle rotation forward. In that reality, Calgary trades the player before his value plummets and gets a much better, much more accomplished guy in his stead.
Either way, there is a real risk. Especially since a deal with Colorado involving Bennett would likely take more from the Flames camp in order to get it done.
So what would you do? Stick with the safe path and leave Bennett down the middle? Make things a bit easier (but more complicated) and move him to the wing? Or cash in the chips now and try to land a guaranteed impact forward?