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Sam Bennett has played his best hockey alongside Mikael Backlund

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/
Jankowski 51.81 57.89 49.48 69.10
Backlund 53.57 49.37 54.85 55.56
Brouwer 44.38 52.95 49.07 60.22
Versteeg 48.76 48.68 46.30 61.54
Frolik 53.51 50.31 55.29 57.25
Gaudreau 51.19 49.72 51.94 72.59
Chiasson 51.19 46.81 52.47 65.47

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/
Backlund 57.65 52.07 56.00 61.40
Tkachuk 55.96 54.26 56.84 53.06
Neal 53.75 55.38 50.43 63.64
Ryan 56.37 54.78 51.51 56.52
Jankowski 48.87 57.80 45.82 53.85
Frolik 59.62 52.69 54.80 75.00

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.

    • deantheraven

      That’s Pike that post that pic. He posted the pick from last year’s 4-goal fame with Jagr in the background for the past post about Bennett. maybe there’s another source of good Flames photos out there besides USA Today.
      Just sayin’…

    • Alberta Ice

      Any reason why we didn’t see Bennett early in the shootout? Any reason why we did see Neal early in the shootout?
      (Domingue got them the winning point and Johnny got us the losing point and saved us from no points. Thank you JG.)

  • Squishin

    Wouldn’t this be a more effective article if goals, GF%, and high-danger scoring chances were discussed? I would love to see the same comparisons (Bennett with and Bennett without, Backlund with and Backlund without) but instead using numbers relating to high-quality shots, net-front scrambles, breakaways, goalposts/crossbars, or actual goals. Those are a greater predictor of future success than shot attempts. Skylardog explained this really well last year.

    • L.Kolkind

      I agree that a more in-depth look would be nice, I think there used to be articles like this previously but haven’t seen too many that include some of the more revealing statistics.

      Corsi is used for a very general look, but without high-danger, zone-start, and quality-of-competition, and quality-of-teammate provide much better looks at why the player is producing the results he is. Like does Bennett succeed with Ryan because they also have Neal and are facing 4th line plugs starting in the o-zone 80% of the time?

      Some stats without context can paint a misleading picture, and I do think for future articles it would be nice if a few more were included.

  • L.Kolkind

    People seem to forget that Bennett is only 22, he is still very young by NHL standards. Him showing that he can drive possession at this age is a good sign, and anybody thinking that Bennett is only a 3rd liner is judging him far too early.

    I’ve always wanted to see him try and use his talent while playing with talented players. It’s much harder to fight through a cold streak when you’re having plays die every time you pass to Brouwer. If he can have steady linemates like Tkachuk and Backlund we might finally start seeing what Bennett is capable of.

  • Jobu

    Substitute “Sam Bennett” with any other non-topline player, and you get the same result.

    They don’t call it the “Backlund Bump” for nothing! Bouma should owe Backlund half of his last contract earnings because of it.

  • Sterls

    If I were to make one tweak to the Flames lineup at this point in the season it would be to consider what I thought they should have tried day one of the preseason. I’d go with this lineup:

    Johnny-Monny-Lindholm
    Bennett-Backlund- Frolik
    Byng-Jankowski-Neal
    LW-Ryan-Hathaway

    The two middle lines I think could be effective 2nd lines but in different roles. Backlund’s line gets the tough matchups, Janko’s line gets paired up against other teams bottom 2 lines. I suppose it relegates Byng to a 3rd line situation as by merit of playing against the oppositions top line every night Backlund’s line likely will see more icetime, but it could make for a potent 3rd line that plays against weaker opposition.

    Pro’s as I see them:
    Janko gets an opportunity to play in a more offensive role with a creative player like Byng. So does Neal. Perhaps it get’s both guys going.
    Bennett is paired with a center he has traditionally done well with, as does Frolik.
    We potentially gain, depending on chemistry, a 3rd line that scores like a 2nd, hopefully adding depth scoring.
    If you swap Backlund and Janko on the powerplay, and switch the 2nd unit to a 3f2d setup replacing Bennett with Anderson, hypothetically the backlund line will be ready to play following a powerplay against the other team’s top unit (thanks Skyler for that observation)

    Cons:
    Backlund line not as offensively talented
    Byng decreases ice time

    This only works though if that 3rd line produces, and Backlund’s line continues to shut down other teams top opposition. What I’m not sure about is just how valuable Byng is to that shutdown line. I remember Burke saying on the radio a few weeks ago that Byng is sublime at defensive zone exits, so he may need integral to the makeup of that line.

    • deantheraven

      A Stunner, Sterls! I was screaming for Benny/Backs/ Fro in September. You drew it up just like I imagined.
      All the stats prove Bennett & Backlund belong together. Janks & Neal need a guy like Byng to complement their talents, and changeover after special teams could avoid the lull with the right changes there.

  • Heeeeere’s Johnny

    Off topic. Just looked at The Athletic’s predictive model of playoff chances and end of season points. If they are right then the Pacific Division ends up with 5 teams in the playoffs. That script has flipped from the beginning of the year. The Flames would finish first in the Pacific and second in the West (behind Winnipeg). They would face the first wild card team which would be Vegas. BTW Winnipeg would end up playing Edmonton so the BOA is not out of the realm of possibility.

  • Flamesfever

    Finally Bennett is becoming better player with Tkachuk and Backlund.
    If we can get the 3rd and fourth lines are working. Flames will be come very dangerously team in the playoff. Go Flames Go.

  • Buffoon dud Hrudey.

    Bennett has the most majestic mustache that has ever graced the lip of a 22 year old man. Look out Lanny, theres a new stache master in town. The Backlund bump IS a thing!

  • The GREAT WW

    I actually read this article (skimmed it) which is rare for me. Who has the time?

    It looks like Byng is a better partner for Bennett than Backlund.
    Byng is probably a better partner for any player, except maybe the Wizzard Gaudreau.

    Let’s see what the killer B line can do the next couple of games….
    Byng-Backlund-Bennett looked good last game.

    WW

      • Puck Head

        Question: If Backlund was on a pure shutdown line (e.g., no Byng) that was shutting down the oppositions top lines and our other lines were pulling their weight by chipping in offensively, would you care about Backlund’s salary and term? The team is winning….

          • Puck Head

            But his shutdown role means that even if you slot him on the game sheet as a 3C, he becomes a 2C. He is overpaid for what he brings to the table but if the pieces fell in place would you care?

          • Getpucksdeep

            Contracts don’t play hockey, players do. I like to know whats going on cap wise, but in the end, these days 1-5 million seems to sometimes be interchangeable! Run what ya brung and stop sweating contract details until summer.

  • The GREAT WW

    I skimmed some more of this article; Ari; are you equating “success” with just Corsi????!!!

    Corsi is for clowns; Corsi clowns more specifically.

    WW

    • Puck Head

      sh!tty Corsi and a winning record are for teams that play the trap. Personally I would rather watch a team that drives play, dominates the opposition (more often than not), and plays to win.

    • Flames fan since 83

      Good of you to skim read before you give your opinion WW.
      Too bad these articles are not on Fox for you to get updated before blessing us with your knowledge.

  • Jumping Jack Flash

    I hate to be the bearer of bad news but Gillies just let in 8 goals in a 8-7 OT loss to Iowa. If that doesn’t put him close to the bottom in save % I would be surprised. He may have to go to the ECHL to find his game. I think it is safe to say we see Parsons next game.

  • TKO

    Backlund has one weakness to his game – and that is his shot (accuracy) other than that, he elevates everyone he plays with, drives possession, and shuts down the best. can’t win without a “Backlund”on your team.
    I do worry though about the size of our team for the post season. this team really could have used a “Wilson” or “Reaves” type, but instead we have the “No Deal Neal”. he better wake the heII up and start contributing, at least with a physical forecheck if nothing else.

    • deantheraven

      I, and others here, have been saying the same thing.
      The game changes in Round 1, Game 1.
      Same reason Tampa will have a hard time making it through. Lots of talent, not much size.