Expectations were a lot higher when Sam Bennett was drafted fourth overall – the highest draft pick in Flames franchise history. With Sean Monahan already in the fold, the two were supposed to form a deadly one-two punch for the rebuilding club, elevating their depth and ensuring they’d be a force to reckon with for years to come.
That hasn’t quite come to fruition, but Bennett is still a pretty good player in his own right – and he tends to be even better when he’s playing on the current second line centre’s wing with Mikael Backlund.
Bennett had the unusual distinction of kicking off his NHL career during a playoff run. With Lance Bouma initially unavailable – more on that shortly – Bennett found himself on Backlund’s line for the improbable run. They didn’t exactly light the world on fire – that team didn’t have much business being in the postseason – but an 18-year-old scoring four playoff points in 11 games for his first taste of NHL action is pretty incredible.
That hasn’t totally materialized, as over his first full three seasons in the NHL – from 2015-18 – he only managed to score 36, 26, and 26 points each year. It isn’t terrible, but it’s not what one would have expected out of such a high pick; today, he’s tied for 10th in his draft class in scoring.
Through those first three seasons, though, Backlund has been Bennett’s second most common forward he’s played alongside; Mark Jankowski has been first.
Establishing a cutoff of at least 400 5v5 minutes spent together in that time, we can take a look at just who has helped Bennett, and who he maybe shouldn’t have been playing alongside. Numbers via Natural Stat Trick:
|Linemate||CF% w/||Bennett CF% w/o||Linemate CF% w/o||OZS% w/|
The numbers make themselves pretty clear: Bennett easily had his greatest success alongside Backlund (and, by extension, Backlund’s former regular linemate, Michael Frolik). Bennett only really ever suffered when away from Backlund, Frolik, Johnny Gaudreau, and Alex Chiasson, but with Backlund the effect was even more pronounced: he was best at driving the puck north alongside him, and that’s with fewer offensive zone starts than with any of the other players.
That does beg a question, however: is it fair to have Backlund play alongside Bennett if it benefits Bennett, but not necessarily Backlund (as evidenced by his corsi away from Bennett)?
I recall an argument when Lance Bouma received a three-year, $2.2 million per deal was that he could very well be worth it if he continued to play alongside Backlund, whom he played his career season alongside. But both then and with the benefit of hindsight it was clear Backlund was the much better player, so why saddle him with a weaker player just so he could have success?
Over those same three seasons, Bennett was Backlund’s third most common linemate, behind Frolik and Matthew Tkachuk. While Bennett can’t compete with either of their numbers – especially not Tkachuk’s – due to the natural aging curve, Frolik is justifiably falling down the forward lineup; it doesn’t hurt to give fresh blood a chance alongside the team’s second best centre. And among all the other forwards Backlund played with over that time – Troy Brouwer, Joe Colborne, Micheal Ferland, Bouma – Bennett’s numbers were in the upper echelon. Backlund wasn’t all that much better away from Bennett, and Bennett could still mostly hold his own away from Backlund.
Even if they aren’t on quite the same level, both players still work well together, and there isn’t really a case to argue for downgraded linemates at all.
What about this season?
Thanks to the Flames’ newfound forward depth, the team’s lines haven’t been quite as consistent in 2018-19. Lately, though, and when both healthy, Bennett has been regularly suiting up alongside Backlund – he’s his most common linemate.
Using a cutoff of at least 40 5v5 minutes played alongside one another:
|Linemate||CF% w/||Bennett CF% w/out||Linemate CF% w/out||OZS% w/|
Bennett is, once again, at his best alongside Backlund (and Frolik, pretty much by extension). He’s also at his weakest away from Backlund, but still able to hold his head well enough above water.
This time, though, there’s a difference: Bennett’s presence on Backlund’s line has actually boosted Backlund’s own corsi. Not by a lot – everyone else’s corsi benefits much more than Backlund’s does when playing alongside Bennett (except for Tkachuk, who’s the only one to see a small drop) – but Backlund is such a strong possession player himself, seeing any kind of boost alongside him is a positive sign.
Bennett has put up some pretty good numbers alongside Derek Ryan as well, and appears to have helped him more than he has Backlund, so that could be a combination worth exploring should someone else step up and claim the full-time role as Backlund and Tkachuk’s permanent linemate on the second line. But in the meantime, there’s some historical precedence that calls for continuing to give Bennett the extended chance, and it should probably stay his until someone else claims it – and that doesn’t seem about to happen any time soon.
Finding that last top six forward has been a challenge for the Flames all season, and Bennett doesn’t seem to be the long-term answer. But until one can be found, he’s playing well alongside Backlund – just as he pretty much always has.