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.
With the line shuffling we have seen to start the season would you consider putting Frolik with Johnny and Monahan?
— Nathan (@nsmigel) October 15, 2017
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.
Do Bartkowski’s numbers justify him locking down that spot and not trying Kulak?
— Ryan Gee (@redricardo) October 15, 2017
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.
With all of the shots against to start the season, and our "really deep D-core"….. Could the shots be a result of poor defensive…
— Summit Master (@PlanetKyle) October 15, 2017
If so, what's the fix?
— Summit Master (@PlanetKyle) October 15, 2017
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.
So when does Gaudreau-Bennett become a thing.
— Kat (@ktcant) October 15, 2017
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.
Or is it too soon to make any real assertion?
— Nick Tivadar (@nicotivs) October 15, 2017
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.
Why doesn't Sam Bennett use his stick for good, & not evil? You know, goals & not penalties?
— Adrian DeCorby (@decorbs) October 15, 2017
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.
Bennett hasn’t had a great start. Before he looses all confidence again why don’t the Flames recall Jankowski and put Bennett on the wing?
— Jason Issler (@jissler1) October 15, 2017
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.