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FlamesNation Mailbag: Bennett on the brain (again)

Since being selected fourth overall in 2014, Sam Bennett has had a non-standard career. First, it was the shoulder surgery that wiped out the majority of his first NHL year. That stunk. The next year, he eased into the NHL, playing on the wing with two of the Flames’ steadiest players. Although inconsistent at times, there was plenty to like about the kid who nearly went 20-20 in his rookie season.

Since then, it has been a mess. In years when he should’ve stepped up to the plate, things went wrong. Perhaps he was held back by lack of quality linemates, but Bennett didn’t impress either. His offensive instincts evaporated and his defensive ability was okay at best. There was some divide on the issue. At 20, the player’s flaws could be written off in favour of circumstance. Sam needed a support system for him to realize his potential, and he didn’t have one in 2016-17.

This was supposed to be the year where he would be able to break free from whatever was holding him back, but so far, it hasn’t happened. The questions have unfortunately shifted away from what his ceiling is to what the floor could be. How do we fix what’s wrong? Is it the teammates? The system? The player? Let’s dive in.

They tried this line last year against the Senators (Jan. 26, right before the All-Star Break) and I remember it being a pretty good line. It’s two of your most reliable offensive weapons plus someone to help out with the defence. What’s the issue?

Well, back then, it was a circumstantial thing. Michael Frolik was the only good Flames RW at that point, with Alex Chiasson being trusted to hold down the fort on the first line (yikes!). That Sens game was after that unfortunate streak where the Flames got whomped by four or more goals four times. Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau weren’t producing, so Gulutzan shook things up. It worked, but then he never tried it again.

A few months makes a lot of difference. Micheal Ferland has emerged as a workable (for now) option on the first line RW. There’s this Czech guy named Jaromir Jagr that hangs around sometime. The Flames don’t really need to move Frolik around to kickstart a dormant line. They don’t have impressive depth, but they have enough to provide a non-anchor option for each of their top three lines. Maybe they give it another shot, depending on what happens with Ferland and/or Curtis Lazar, but I feel that it’s not going to happen.

I was originally going to respond with “what numbers are you looking at?” but I took a peek at Corsica and his numbers are actually pretty pedestrian. Matt Bartkowski has been slightly improved from what he was last year and seems to have settled down in a slightly reduced role. From the eye test, he isn’t pretty, but he isn’t as bad as he was last year. You could do better, but you could also do much worse.

Of course, I would bet against this being the case long term. Six games is six games. Over the span of his career, Bartkowski has been a replacement-level defenceman. If he isn’t now, he likely will return to that level later in the year. Brett Kulak isn’t the solution many people are imagining him to be (he’s only played 30 games in the NHL, so still a bit of a wild card) but we can reasonably expect him to be better than Bartkowski. Even if the Flames don’t want to bet on that, Kulak being younger should also force the team’s hand, given that they should probably see what they have in the 23-year-old before the younger defensive crop comes knocking at the door.

The problem is team-wide. Aside from Dougie Hamilton, Mark Giordano, Matt Stajan, and Matthew Tkachuk, all regular players are allowing over 33 SA/60 at 5v5, with four Flames in the 40s. That’s not great.

Although bold, I’m willing to say that score effects and early season jitters are mostly to blame. They’ve held their previous two opponents to under 30 shots (albeit, those are the Sens and the Canucks, both of whom don’t have much offensive firepower [but also, the Flames were shorthanded seven times each for both of those games, so holding them to under 30 is a minor miracle]) and saw onslaughts in the third period while leading against the Kings and Ducks.

However, I’m not writing these concerns off. Even in those games where you can point to score effects, they still allowed a lot while leading by very little. The team tends to dig in very deep while leading, even if it’s not by very much. It worked against Anaheim, barely against L.A. The Flames really need to keep pressing in the third period. The past two games have been positives (in regard to shot suppression, not much else though), but the team still needs to keep up the good work. I’d hold off for at least a few more games and see if the Flames improve.

Other notes: it goes without saying, but they also need to stop taking penalties. Their PK has so far been middle in the road with regards to shot suppression (15th in SA/60, 57.89) but in raw numbers, they’ve allowed a league second worst 47 shots against on the PK because of how often they’re shorthanded. That’s a hair under eight additional shots per game simply from being undisciplined.

I don’t know when, but it should be. Best case scenario, you get Bennett into gear while seamlessly sliding Monahan down the rotation to make your whole top nine a threatening presence. Worst case, you go back with what works on that top line and work with Sam on your own time.

It will likely never happen. Gulutzan has been playing with lines recently (mostly due to the fact that some guys have to play PK often and are, as a result, exhausted), but he seems to never seriously deviate from the status quo pairs. Monahan has always played with Gaudreau, so he will always play with Gaudreau. So it goes.

Just as recently as last week (and I guess this one), people were wondering whether Sam should be on the first line with the team’s best winger. Fast forward seven days, and it’s people wondering if he is even worth the third line minutes. Small sample sizes in the early season make fools of us all.

So yes, certainly too soon. If Bennett had been on fire for these first six games, people would proclaim he’s just reaching his potential. Since he hasn’t been, he’s in bust territory. It’s a big overreaction. People have seemingly deemed these first six games (remember last year when Monahan also looked abysmal to start the year? Things worked themselves out) as the diploma exam for the rest of Bennett’s career. It’s not the right approach at all.

On a tangent, I feel that the one way to fix Sam is some stability. He hasn’t had a consistent linemate besides Kris Versteeg and his wing has been a rotation of Lazar and Troy Brouwer, neither of which are ideal. The most successful line he’s been on, with Versteeg and Jagr, has seen an average of five minutes of 5v5 time per night. That’s also the line he’s spent the most time with over the course of this short season, at just under 16 minutes over three games. If Gulutzan keeps working with that instead of pulling out the blender halfway through the second, he could see points start coming in.

This is probably the most frustrating development in Bennett’s game. He’s always had a mean streak (118 PIMs in Kingston, 41 ahead of the next closest, for example), and it comes with the power forward style he likes, but it doesn’t cut it if you aren’t drawing a number of penalties in return (currently -5 on the year in that department) or if you aren’t putting up enough numbers (which is hard to do while sitting in the penalty box). When he was a fresh faced rookie, he only put up 34 PIMs, taking 14 5v5 penalties and drawing 24. That’s the Sam we need.

Tkachuk is the best of example of an agitator that can get away with it. He draws around as many penalties as he takes (currently -2 in this department) and does contribute all around. If Bennett can emulate that game (has anyone thought about putting the two together?) it could be dynamite.

I’m not sure how “we are moving you from your position after six games so we can put a rookie there” is going to save anyone’s confidence (assuming anyone here has an accurate gauge on Bennett’s confidence, or if we’re all just guessing), but for the sake of the question, I feel that the Flames are likely going to want to see what happens long term for both players. At 4-2, they probably don’t feel the need to make any drastic moves and can still feel things out. Bennett has been poor, but not poor enough to sink the team’s results, and there’s still time to find his groove. Mark Jankowski has been great in Stockton, but is still an unknown quantity at the NHL level and doesn’t need to be given heaping expectations while being thrown into the fire right away.

If it still isn’t working by December, maybe they do something. For the time being, ride it out.

  • BringtheFire 2.0

    “Remember last year when Monahan also looked abysmal to start the year?”

    But Monahan had proved himself in previous seasons. Sam hasn’t.

    “If it still isn’t working by December, maybe they do something. For the time being, ride it out.”

    Okay, that’s fair.

    I think we can get Sam on the go by giving him lots of PP. There’s no reason he can’t take Troy’s place on the PP. He puts up a couple of points, makes a Brodie-esque play to keep the puck in the zone, these things can boost confidence, which Sam needs.

    But one thing about Sam that he needs to work on is managing his frustration. You can tell by how hard he tries that the effort interferes with the fine edges and polish that his game needs.

    Please give Sam more PP time!!

  • Alberta Ice

    Heard a radio rumor that Benny unmasked and took off his beard. (That unwanted weight should make him a faster skater.) Seriously, this guy fits on this team and works hard. It’s disappointing not seeing more scoring productivity. Let’s give him some more learning time with Jags and trust he gets his game with his assigned line mates on a more expected level soon.

    • Off the wall

      Couldn’t agree more.
      Remember Brodie last season?Yah, what a difference a great line mate makes! Thanks to Hamonic we are seeing our REAL Brodie.

      Watching him live for the first time this season, I have no doubt Bennett is going to be better. Much better.

      We wouldn’t dare take away Tkachuk’s feistiness, nor should we remove this from Bennett’s game.

      • Rudy27

        He is still the only power forward center on this team. I say “Be patient and let him grow”. I’m high on Jankowski to play the power forward center role too, but don’t forget Jankowski is a couple of years older than Bennett and didn’t miss a season of development due to injury. So cut Bennett some slack.

  • Newbietwo

    I believe Bennett will be a better centre than Mony and as I’ve watched his play this season thus far he is doing a good job being in the game far more than Mony and that he’s points will come

  • Squishin

    We all forget how young he is sometimes. He’s not through developing yet, despite how much we all want him to be lighting it up. Let’s give him until he’s 24 or so, and then we’ll actually know what the Flames have in him. He is quick, strong, and plays with an edge. These are all attributes that are hard to teach, and extremely valuable in the center position. I have no doubt that he’ll be an excellent player, it will just take some time.

  • Raffydog

    I’m a huge fan of Bennett, but maybe it’s time to accept that he may never be more than a bottom 6 forward. Not a bad thing when it comes to having depth, but unfortunate that he happens to be our highest draft pick ever.

  • fumanchu1968

    People need to give Bennett a break. He’s a young kid. If GG will just let him play with Versteeg and Jagr he will develop his confidence just fine. My one criticism of Bennett is that he doesn’t play with enough reckless abandon. When he does, he’s dominant.

  • Flamethrower

    Is Sam Bennett that fragile that he can’t be moved from center, it should have been done along time ago. If for no other reason than a wake up call. As long as Flames ownership and the GM continue with the likes of Brouwer, Bartkowski, and the rest of the geritol crew this club will remain mediocre.
    Ah yes all the slashing penalties, besides the game of hockey has changed so much. No clutching or grabbing, no standing forwards up at the blue line, defence men unable to move a guy from in front of the net, now stick work has been taken away I agree that whacks to the hands or body should be a penalty but playing the stick is still the game. So what is to be done to slow up a fast offence?
    We keep changing the game. Remember the good old hockey game. Seems to me as a Canadian the game is becoming watered down to suit the American markets.

  • Chucky

    Sometimes I wonder if people realize what they are saying.

    From above (assume Christian)”Mark Jankowski has been great in Stockton, but is still an unknown quantity at the NHL level and doesn’t need to be given heaping expectations while being thrown into the fire right away”

    How can keeping this guy in the AHL where he will score more than a goal a game result in less than “heaping expectations” when he gets to the NHL?

    • class1div1

      Not sure about Christian ,but many of the analytics crowd here proclaimed that Jankowski had little to no chance of making the NHL.They get so hung up on numbers and birthdays.Ill bet they see his success as a small sample size. His college numbers didn’t match there criteria of a good prospect so they wrote him off.Looks like they were very wrong.

  • Flint

    I really think with Bennett at this point it’s becoming a multitude of small “issues” that are combining into the one large issue of him playing poorly.

    But I don’t think it’s all on Sam. In fact, I think a lot of it is on GG. It comes down to usage. I would argue that Bennett gets the worst possible conditions for the type of player he is (not of the whole team, but for his style of play). He consistently (other than his first year) gets problematic linemates like the Brouwers and even Jagr’s of the world. Jagr for example needs quality line mates – so does Sam. So does Brouwer. Sam could use PP time. So could Jagr. If you want Brouwer to earn his pay… so could he, which he gets and shouldn’t.

    Sam could use the most favourable zone starts, but the top line gets those. He’s up there for sure, and doesn’t get buried like the 3M line, but there is a big gap after Monahan/Gaudreau/Ferland.

    I just think that it’s all these little things that are a bit out of necessity – his linemates, his zone starts, his PP time etc that make it a little tougher on Sam than ideal for a young player stuggling. I think he’s likely aware of those things and I’m sure it cannot help him find a groove. Then with the penalties and confidence etc. I think it’s easy to see him want it, but it not come.

    You know he only has 4 shots all season! Tkachuk by comparison has 19! Sure, Sam needs to shoot the puck more, but even if he was scoring at an unsustainable 25% he’d have 1G and 0A and people would be saying he sucks just the same. And I don’t think you go along at an avg of .66 Shots/game solely because of the player. He needs to be put in situations to get 3-4 shots per game.

    If he shoots .66 shots/game all season (not going to happen) he’ll get 54 shots. Even if he shot ~18%, with 54 shots he’d only get 10 goals. None of those rates are going to happen.

    Sam needs to stay out of the box (on him) and play with players that compliment him and vice-versa and get some ice time where he can get some shots (on GG).

    • Cheeky

      I also think he needs a linemate to take some of the pressure off him (his bang and crash style). I wonder if he feels he needs to push his agressiveness due to his “softer” linemates style. Wondering if trying Ferland or Lazar (or gasp Tkachuk) for a few games with him and Versteeg. These guys play that syle which could allow him to ease back a bit and utilize his skill more…

    • everton fc

      Sorry – here’s what I should have typed:

      Gaudreau-Bennett-Jagr/Lazar
      Tkachuk-Backlund-Frolik
      Versteeg-Monahan-Jagr/Lazar
      Ferland-Jankowski-Brouwer

      I hate Ferland on the 4th line, though.

  • flamesburn89

    I would be tempted to break up the 3M line if it helps Bennett find some semblance of scoring. Maybe put Tkachuk on his wing and put Versteeg with Backlund. If not, just leave him with Versteeg and Jagr full time.