WWYD Wednesday: What to do with Sam Bennett

If you’re anything like me, you expected Sam Bennett to take a big step forward this year. I’ve said more than once that I think Bennett has a higher ceiling than Sean Monahan. 

For justifiable reasons, I think: Bennett is a better skater, is more tenacious and is a better puck handler. The Flames’ highest draft pick ever was dominant in junior (despite suffering through a shoulder problem in his draft year) and was considered by some as a talent potentially worthy of going first overall.

Unfortunately, like Monahan, Bennett has more or less run in place this year. He’s on pace to score fewer points than he did as a rookie (34 vs. 36), has been permanently bumped from the Flames’ powerplay, and currently centres a line that struggles at even strength. There’s really nothing in his game to be excited about right now.

So what’s to be done with Sam Bennett?

How bad is it?

This is especially relevant because Bennett is struggling through perhaps his worst stretch of the season. In his last 15 games, Bennet has just three points (all goals) and just 27 shots on net (1.8 per game). 

The underlying numbers are equally poor. Over that period of time, Bennett’s shot attempt, scoring chance and goal differentials at even strength are at -91, -71 and -7, respectively. In terms of ratios, that is a CF of 47%, SCF 43% and GF of 46%. 

So with Bennett on the ice, the Flames are getting soundly outshot, outchanced and outscored. Since the clock ticked over to 2017, the Bennett line has pretty consistently been the worst line night in and night out in terms of possession.

So it’s bad by math. And by eye, too. Bennett is visibly frustrated and ineffective most nights. The creativity he’s flashed in spurts since coming into the league is notably dormant. His decision making is hesitant and suboptimal. He is still aggressive, but only in fits and starts and is still prone to taking bad offensive zone penalties. He also hasn’t figured out the defensive side of the puck at even strength, so his line is prone to getting hemmed into the Flames zone for long spells.

What are the options? 

Let’s start with the options we have and explore them a bit more throughly afterwards:

1.) Drop Bennett to the fourth line.

2.) Get Bennett a play-driving linemate.

3.) Move Bennett to the wing.

4.) Status quo (let him play through it).

Sean Monahan struggling at the same time makes Glen Gulutzan’s life a bit more complicated. Right now GG is burying the Backlund and Matt Stajan lines and giving Monahan as many offensive zone starts as possible. That leaves Bennett’s line whatever’s left in the middle. 

Here’s how the usage shakes out:

BennetUsage

(On this chart: the further right the player, the more offensive zone face offs he gets. The higher up he is, the tougher his competition). 

As you can see, the Monahan line gets the easiest ratio of zone starts, but at least Bennett is still above 50%.

What’s curious here is how relatively undifferentiated the top three lines (and top two defensive units) are in terms of quality of competition. 

In contrast, here’s how Boston’s usage chart looks. I picked them because they have a similarly dominant ES line to Backlund’s unit in Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak:

BOSUsage

Although the Bergeron unit gets the high ground a bit more than Backlund, you can also see they are the clear leaders on the team in terms of tough matchups. This is probably something GG should concentrate a bit more on moving forward. 

This brings us to option 1 – dropping Bennett to the fourth line. That would mean elevating Stajan in order to give Bennett the easiest minutes possible as he finds his footing. In context of the discussion above, that would mean bumping Stajan’s quality of competition, but likely keeping him in the same area zone start-wise. 

While this doesn’t put Bennett in a position to get more ice time or points, it does give him a chance to refine his game and get some confidence against third and fourth liners. It also means the Flames don’t have a third line getting its clock cleaned every night, which is of concern since the team is pushing for a playoff spot. 

Here’s what the roster might look like as a result:

  • Tkachuk – Backlund – Frolik
  • Gaudreau – Monahan – Chiasson
  • Ferland – Stajan – Versteeg
  • Bouma – Bennett – Hathaway

Of course, there is also the risk of this move sinking Bennett’s confidence even further. A bump down the rotation to play with grinders in a limited role means less chance to impact the game. Nevertheless, the fourth line is where a majority of kids and hopefuls find themselves at the start of their career, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented.

Option 2, get Bennett a play-driving linemate, sounds more appealing until you consider what it would require. Technically, GG has tried this already by playing Ferland with Bennett. Prior to landing on Bennett’s wing, Ferland was one of the Flames’ best possession players this year outside of the Backlund line. Unfortunately, he has sunk right along with Bennett since being elevated. 

The only other options are moving one of Frolik or Tkachuk to play with Bennett, which would mean breaking up the highly effective 3M unit. We’ve theorized previously this might be required given how much the rest of the Flames’ top nine has struggled this year, but it’s still a tough pill to swallow. The risk is you guarantee lowering the impact of the best even strength unit on the team, but you don’t know how much it will improve the Bennett unit. 

Option 3 is perhaps the most obvious. In his rookie year, Bennett excelled on the wing with Backlund and Frolik, so returning him to LW seems to be a no-brainer. Shifting him to the flank also means Bennett doesn’t have to learn the difficult aspects of playing C at the NHL level right now, perhaps giving him time and space to rebuild his game. 

Keep in mind, however, that Bennett pretty much ONLY excelled on the wing when playing with Backlund. The two of them have a CF of about 53% together, but Bennett’s results drop precipitously when playing with any other pivot: Monahan + Bennett (CF 43%), Stajan + Bennett (CF of 47.8%), Granlund + Bennett (CF of 43.9%)… none of these combinations drove play or scoring at even strength. 

On top of all this, the organization is somewhat committed to developing Bennett as a C. Unless Mark Jankowski can leap into the show and bump Bennett to the wing, Calgary currently doesn’t have a long-term option to fill out the center depth. This is especially concerning from a roster building perspective given Monahan’s failure to meaningfully develop this year as well.

Option 4 seems like the least appealing initially, but it might be the only workable situation right now. If the team wants (needs?) Bennett to become a capable top six pivot, then it might just need to live through these growing pains right now and leave him where he is. 

I assume this is the course GG will take. Aside from shuffling linemates a bit, Gulutzan will keep trying to get Bennett to find his footing in the Flames’ 3C position for now. The one thing he could do to help, I think, goes back to the usage chart above – get the Bennett line a more time against third and fourth lines and avoid the top rotation a bit more. 

So what would you do with Bennett? Move him down, move him to the wing, give him Tkachuk/Frolik or just let him figure things out?

    • OKG

      And when was this?

      Bennett played centre exclusively in Kingston. He played wing in Midget AAA on a line with McDavid (and probably would have played center there too, if that team didn’t have Connor McDavid. Know who’s on McDavid’s wing right now? Leon Draisaitl.)

  • RKD

    I know he’s a center by position but the reality is when he played wing he was more creative, generating more offensive chances. I know the org wants to have him as a center but that’s a very difficult position to be good at night in and night out. They need to play Bennett at to his strengths.

  • jakethesnail

    I am more concerned about Sean Monahan than Sam Bennett:

    1.In the NHL : Monahan 4th year, Bennett 2nd year

    2. After 2 seasons of over 60 points Mony has dropped off to 23 pts in 44 games; Benny has almost remained at nearly same production: 18G 18A last season (4 of them goals came in 1 game) to 9 goals and 9 assists this season.

    So despite Mony being more protected than Benny, and playing with the Flames top forward Johnny Hockey he has regressed while Benny has remained the same.

    So, Benny will be ok. If you are going to bench Benny do it because of taking dumb penalties and not his offensive output!

  • OKG

    1) Stop with the offensive zone start push. It is counterproductive with players who lose faceoffs as it just ends up in them wasting energy skating on the backcheck and then tiring out before the end of their shift. It’s a lot easier to lose a D-zone faceoff and recover (see: Backlund) than to lose an O-zone faceoff and finish that shift with anything resembling offense. Gulutzan may think Offensive Zone Starts = Sheltering but they’re not, sometimes you have to watch the play to see a player would benefit from less pseudo-sheltering. Eakins did the same thing with Draisaitl, gave him an Ozone push that just killed his confidence and ability.

    2) Stop, PLEASE with the Engelland-Jokipakka. They are at fault for Bennett’s declined possession stats. Kulak-Engelland needs to be a thing again.

    3) Stay patient. Still gonna be the best center in franchise history when it’s all said and done.

  • buts

    Bennett is a classic example of a teams management playing a guy because they picked him in the 1st round. If he was a later pick he would be in the minors. Best case scenario would be a winger. 3 years from now he will be a solid 2 line player. If you could package him for Duchene or Landeskog I’d do it in a minute.

  • Parallex

    One more thing… PK minutes. If anything is going to drill positioning into young playera muscle memory it’ll be PK minutes so I endorse having him on the PK.

  • King Quong

    I think the best option would be to give Bennett another high level winger one thats not on the team at the moment unfortunately with the expansion draft this season i dont see that happening but i honestly think Bennett will be fine when the quality of his teammates raise. Maybe next season when Tkachuk isnt a rookie we can play him with either Monahan or Bennett and Gaudreau getting the other centre and hopefully Tkachuk will be a little more capable of helping out either centre. Also I keep seeing people comment on putting Gaudreau and Versteeg with either Monahan or Bennett which i agree would help out either centre but the problem with that is that leaves the other Centre with Chiasson and Brouwer/Ferland robbing one struggling centre to help out another doesnt make sense.

  • calgaryfan

    The Flames have 2 young centers that need to be sheltered with offensive zone starts, and they choose to protect Monahan more than Bennett. Why is Bennett being singled out maybe Monahan should move to wing or benched.
    I think the coaches shelter Monahan more as they believe Bennett will become a more complete player.

  • Eggs Bennett

    Let Bennett play it out. All of our offensive players have been pretty snake bitten trying to adjust to the new system and style of play. It’s not like he is being buried. Sam is too talented not to figure this out.

  • Xcameron

    Another option… send him down for a few weeks to find his game. Pretty harsh but he needs to learn to play pivot at the next level. Not suggesting this the way to go but it belongs in a discussion of valid options

  • SydScout

    Big caveat to this comment – wading in as a relative newbie, and have never played the game.

    Currently reading Take Your Eye Off the Puck: How to Watch Hockey By Knowing Where to Look by Greg Wyshynski, and learning a shedload. One thing that stood out in the earlier chapters was about how much work a C has to do relative to wingers or D. Basically, they have to be the third D, take draws against wily ole vets that know all the tricks, never screw up, if a screw up happens be the first forward back, set up their wingers, etc. I had so vastly underappreciated just what a massive role it is relative to the other five out there. This was a lightbulb moment as the first two guys that came to mind were Bennett and Mony given their struggles and age.

    So with Sam, I’m inclined to leave him to develop as a 3C – he’s so young for this particular position. Sure playing wing would probably help his offence, but I cant see how it will develop his C skills and knowledge. Dropping him to a fourth line would not give him enough time on the ice to develop, nor forgiving linemates to can help out when things go awry as he learns. And I agree with @smith – give him plenty of PP time.

    Love the analytics side of things, but in this case, I do think a change just to improve his metrics in the short term might cruel the team in the future. Plus, I’m sure these struggles mean we can ink him for a sweet contract at the end of the season – and go long, no bridges.

    • calgaryfan

      The high forward in the offensive zone needs to be the first back helping out the defence not always the center. They are supposed to be a 5 man unit and smart enough to adapt to the play in front of them. A lot of centers in the NHL today are shoot first and not really play makers. Under Hartley Hudler and Johnny were tasked with being the first back not Monahan.

    • Baalzamon

      Sure playing wing would probably help his offence, but I cant see how it will develop his C skills and knowledge.

      Thank you for saying this. Never understood the argument that he was “learning how to play center” by playing LW. It’s a complete fallacy.

      Also: It wouldn’t help his offense unless he was on a line with Backlund. Playing with anyone else would make it worse.

  • Parallex

    There’s only so many things the team can do.

    Functionally, I think they should Put Versteeg with Gaudreau and Monahan and have that line be the only one that get’s the high ground (High ground paid for by the good work of Stajan and the 3M line). Sam (and ideally Ferland + Brouwer) they simply get neutral zone starts/qual comp.

    Sam’s just gotta work through it.

  • JMK

    Was there not an article recently on how well he was doing on the PK? I get the concern but at least mention his strong suits too. Pretty high up on the even strength scoring list for the team too.

  • Petzl

    Play Bennett with Johnny and place steeger on the wing, nice fast yet tenacious line. Monahan can play with Brouwer (more his pace anyways) and Ferland.

    Give Bennett a real shake to come out of this funk hes in but make it clear that the penalties need to stop.

  • PrairieStew

    Give Bennett Tkachuk for his LW. I know it’s hard to split up the 3M line who have been outstanding, but one of the principles of continuous improvement is to make changes at the peak of performance before the slide down the other side of the curve begins. That group is in for a normalization and mixing it up might be good for everyone.

    I’d give Bouma a shot with Backlund and Frolik, to increase his confidence and potentially his value as an expansion choice or offseason move. His best times came with Backlund.

    That would push Ferland down with Hathaway flanking Stajan. The physical 4th.

  • ronipedia

    Could try him on Monahan’s wing for a while, relegating Chiasson to the bottom six where he belongs. Move Stajan up to 3C, Bouma or Hamilton to 4C.

    Bennett is a talented player, but it isn’t working right now. Some time with Gaudreau and Monahan could help.

  • beloch

    Bennett’s top two linemates in terms of TOI in 2015-2016 were Frolik and Backlund. This year, it’s Chiasson and Brouwer. To be blunt, that’s a huge drop in quality of linemates, so it’s actually encouraging that Bennett’s CF% has dropped just 1% because of this (his deployment is roughly the same), let alone because he’s playing center full-time this season. Bennett’s not producing more points or excelling at possession because he’s carrying his line. While it would be nice to see him put in a better position to light up the scoreboard, the truth is that he has not regressed and we shouldn’t be concerned about him. He’s fine where his is if that’s where the team can best make use of him.

    The one thing that worries me about Bennett is the number of minors he takes. He’s third on the team in PIM, and the bulk of that is undisciplined, poorly timed minor infractions. The Flames’ penalty minutes have sky-rocketed this season and Bennett’s a big part of that. Simply put, he needs to exercise more discipline.

  • smith

    Actually I would like Monahan and Bennet switched. Monahan looked pretty good with Ferland and Versteeg before.

    Also put skilled players on the powerplay. Get scoring and build confidence. His even-strength points actually do not look that bad.

    Maybe for a little while absolutely bury Backland. Just for a little while to try and get Monahan and Bennet’s confidence going again.

  • Newbietwo

    First and foremost Bennet needs to replace 19 on the second unit powerplay.. when you take away power play opportunities from and offensive player they lose an element of their offensive right away.. look at it historically.. to add to that it will make our second unit pp play even more dominant

    Second thing is Bennett is struggling for one simple reason this season and that is because he holds onto the puck too long which talks to two key factors

    1. The trust and chemistry he has on his wingers to hold the puck and make the right pass
    2. The thought in his head that he needs to do more to generate

    Bennett will become a very good player really he will but he needs to entrust his line mates and then use his legs to get into position.. look at Backlund and why giants game has changed.. Backlund get the puck off his stick and gets into a spot to receive a pass.. Bennett unfortunately is still trying to skate past the whole opposition and rushes himself..

    Breath Bennett make the pass and skate your ass off! Funny enough Brodie is having similar issues this year and like Bennett he is also a Gemini lol