The highly coveted first rounder’s rookie season was full of promise. Two goals shy of 20. More than 35 points despite limited ice time. He played with an edge and the upside was obvious.
But the sequel was disappointing and he was labelled an enigma. His second professional season was a step backward and the doubts he would ever fulfill his potential began early.
Despite the familiarity you may be feeling, we’re not talking about the Calgary Flames’ Sam Bennett here. This was Todd Bertuzzi’s entry into the NHL.
After a few inconsistent seasons to start his own career, there’s no telling yet what Bennett may be capable of. But Bertuzzi’s story is as good as any to illustrate why the Flames should avoid the temptation to trade young Bennett amid all the chatter that other teams are circling to take advantage.
Drafted 23rd overall in 1993, Bertuzzi went to the New York Islanders organization with the weight of the franchise on his shoulders. Despite his respectable start as a 19-year-old rookie, Bertuzzi didn’t sustain that pace in his second season. He didn’t respond to criticism well, either, and asked GM Mike Milbury for a trade as a sophomore who was playing too “soft” for the team brass’ liking.
Milbury responded with a demotion to the minors. The 13-game stint (during which Bertuzzi scored five goals and 10 points) did nothing for his confidence or his play. His third year saw the numbers decline even more. Through 52 games, he’d scored just seven times and accumulated 18 points before he got his wish — a trade to the Vancouver Canucks.
His new coach was Iron Mike Keenan, who despite his reputation realized the big man he’d just acquired had a sensitive side that needed to be nurtured.
“He had dealt with a certain level of rejection,” Keenan told ESPN The Magazine back in 2002. “There were unrealistic expectations, and he put a great deal of pressure on his own game. I tried to get him to understand it wasn’t going to happen overnight.”
The change of scenery helped Bertuzzi — still just 23 — become one of the most dominant power forwards in the league, reaching his peak in 2002-03 with 46 goals and 97 points.
That story didn’t really have a happy ending, with The Incident changing the narrative forever. But even with that unfortunate event affecting Bertuzzi’s later years, the winger racked up really good numbers with 314 goals and 770 points in 1,159 regular season games over 18 seasons.
The Flames would be thrilled with that kind of production and longevity from Bennett, who has also struggled with expectations — the organization’s as well as his own — while managing just 42 goals and 89 points through his first 241 games heading into his fourth season.
The pressures of being the Flames’ highest-ever draft pick at fourth overall in 2014 came in tandem with comparisons to feisty ex-Flames forward Doug Gilmour, who also happened to be Bennett’s junior coach with the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs. Bennett’s 55 goals, 155 points and 219 penalty minutes in 128 OHL games had Flames fans frothing for their shiny new forward.
Like Bertuzzi, an 18-goal (and 36 points in 77 games) rookie season from Bennett added to the excitement. But that love affair in Years Two and Three faded along with declining goal totals (13 in 2016-17 and 11 last year) and identical 26-point sums.
We’ve been teased by the chemistry he showed on the second line with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik as a rookie, and brief stretches of strong play since — like the 10 points in 12 games he earned nine months ago while paired with Mark Jankowski — but he has remained an enigma of inconsistency.
Showing more signs of finding his stride now in his fourth season, Bennett added his second official goal Friday night (he’s also had a pair waved off through the first seven games) and has three points nearly a month earlier than he hit that mark last year (Nov. 13). People aren’t forgetting the struggles of the past two seasons, but they’re remembering why they were so enthusiastic about him after the draft.
And the 22-year-old is still younger than Bertuzzi was at the time of his move to Vancouver.
Bennett is showing some speed and grit on the forecheck, a fearlessness going to the net, and the strength and skill necessary to finish plays there, too. He’s taking minor penalties, but he’s drawing them, too, because he’s regularly pushing forward in the attacking zone.
The bottom line is that nothing that they would get in return for the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder would be as likely to hit those Bertuzzi numbers as Bennett himself.
A new coaching staff in Calgary may have been all the fresh start Bennett needed.