Getting a grasp on Sam Bennett has been like trying to grip mercury with a fork. There have been highs, lows and everything in between, but it’s been difficult to find a rhyme or reason and project what the future that at once seemed so bright for Bennett now holds.
It’s been easy to lose sight of the bigger picture at either extreme, and indeed it seems many have from time to time. Whether that’s projecting Bennett as the top line centre of the Flames’ future, which at one point seemed reasonable, or finding his name as a fixture in the rumour mill, as we did as recently as the beginning of this season.
With a slight course correction, the Flames squashed the latter of those possibilities. By moving Bennett back to the wing on a line with Mark Jankowski and a rotating cast of wingers highlighted by Jaromir Jagr and Garnet Hathaway, they’ve restored Bennett’s stock to a place where his value with the Flames far outweighs anything they could reasonably expect for him in a trade.
After a pointless and mostly lifeless 15 games to start the season, Bennett’s found his game again, and the Flames have found consistent secondary scoring.
Since shifting back to the wing on the third line, Bennett’s rediscovered his two-way game. Best of all, he’s chipped in with 16 points in Calgary’s last 24 games, good for a 0.66 point per game pace. Not bad!
Some of that is a matter of luck, which is largely out of the Flames’ hands and even Bennett’s to an extent. When Bennett was sporting a personal shooting percentage of null and had an on-ice shooting percentage that wasn’t that much better in the first handful of games, it wasn’t that he forgot how to score – Bennett just couldn’t catch a break. Now that the Flames are scoring as a team at a slightly better than expected rate with Bennett on the ice, well, he looks positively great.
Even when the Flames’ on-ice shooting percentage trends downwards with Bennett on the ice, as it’s likely to do at some point or another, the drop off won’t be terribly steep.
Playing Bennett with a playmaker like Jankowski has allowed him to focus more on putting the puck on net and less on distributing offence between his linemates. Bennett’s taking to his new assignment with unmatched enthusiasm.
No Flames player is shooting the puck more often than Bennett, who’s sending over 11 shots on net per hour at five-on-five. The next closest Flames skater is Michael Frolik, and he’s about two behind Bennett. And they’re not exactly low-chance shots from the perimeter either. If they were, Bennett wouldn’t also lead the Flames in high-danger scoring chances per hour with close to six, according to NaturalStatTrick.
If Bennett’s pace keeps up, he’ll top his season-high in shots by about 50 at season’s end.
Bennett’s assists might be inflated, if only slightly, but his tepid scoring rate relative to how often he’s putting the puck on the net is sure to pick up at some point. That’s when the fun starts.
The chemistry that Bennett’s developed with Jankowksi goes beyond their scoring prowess, although that alone says plenty. Bennett has a better share of unblocked shot attempts, shots and goals with Jankowski than without. It’s paying dividends at the other end of the ice as well.
Whereas secondary scoring was once an issue for this Flames roster, it’s now a relative strength – however, the Frolik injury does strain that. And with Jagr back from injury, there’s no reason to expect that to change anytime soon. The only question now is what exact configuration works best, in light of Hathaway’s emergence from relative obscurity.
As Steve MacFarlane noted earlier in the season, the Flames deserve a lot of credit for their patience and diligence in handling Bennett this season. There was no panic, just a calculated plan to get the highest draft pick in the history of their franchise back on track. It took a little time for it to pay off, but they’ve set themselves and Bennett up for a lengthy, productive relationship.