Flames head coach Geoff Ward raised some eyebrows this week when answering a question about forward Sam Bennett. Asked on Sportsnet 960 radio where he sees Bennett playing next season, Ward replied simply: “centre…nothing more to add.” After his performance down the middle during the post-season, you can understand why Ward is intrigued. But moving Bennett to centre permanently has a few interesting challenges associated with it.
The case for it
Bennett was arguably Calgary’s best forward in their 10 return to play games this summer. With five goals and eight points, Bennett finished tied with Sean Monahan for the team scoring lead. Adding in his team-leading 54 hits, it felt like Bennett made an impact virtually every shift on a line with Milan Lucic and Dillon Dube. Bennett’s underlying metrics were also among the best on the team, courtesy Natural Stat Trick.
I’ll be honest, I had written off the prospect of Bennett at centre a couple years ago. Maybe that was unfair, knowing Bennett has only just completed his fifth NHL season. I just didn’t see Bennett’s vision, decision-making, and distribution skills being at a high enough level to allow him to be an effective centre on a regular basis. But I’ve changed my tune since watching Bennett in August.
The guy really was dynamite in games against both Winnipeg and Dallas. Bennett played a simple, fast, and straightforward game, which allowed his strengths to be on display. Bennett is a strong skater, is highly-skilled with the puck, finishes well from in tight, and hits like a truck. All of those things were at the forefront this summer.
Watching Bennett during the post-season got me thinking. In his five NHL seasons, we haven’t seen him extensively down the middle. It has always been small auditions before being moved back to the wing. But the “playoff Sam Bennett” we saw in 2020 was the best version we’ve ever seen, and it came with him at centre. Maybe that’s the key to unlocking a more effective player during the regular season? It’s far from a guarantee, but it’s definitely something that entered my mind.
Why it’s a difficult move
The concept of moving Bennett to the middle permanently is easy to say, but perhaps not as simple in practice. It’s a more feasible move if the Flames opt to structure their forward group in a similar fashion as they did in the playoffs.
Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-Elias Lindholm
Andrew Mangiapane-Mikael Backlund-Matthew Tkachuk
Milan Lucic-Sam Bennett-Dillon Dube
Mark Jankowski-Derek Ryan-Tobias Rieder
Knowing how effective the trio of Bennett, Lucic, and Dube was, I can’t imagine too many people being upset if that’s what Calgary opts to do to start next season. That said, the Flames were bounced in six games vs. Dallas and were the second best team for a good chunk of that series. That’s why many, including me, believe a rethink of this team’s forwards is the way to go.
Spend two seconds with me and you’ll know my thoughts on Lindholm playing centre. I think it makes Calgary better and a much harder team to match up against. It also allows Monahan and Gaudreau to be less exposed in the areas they struggle, which is crucial if they’re going to remain in the fold. General manager Brad Treliving hinted at the team’s desire to move Lindholm off the wing earlier this off-season, too.
“I wanted to give the coaches the flexibility of using Elias in a couple different roles,” Treliving said. “With the addition of Josh (Leivo), with the addition of Dominik (Simon)…it allows you to put Elias in the middle and you’re not putting a square peg in a round hole when you start looking to reconfigure your right side.
“It gives you a bunch of different looks. It makes your team more difficult to matchup against. You can expose maybe some match-ups on the other side. And so we wanted to at least have that opportunity to look at it. We wanted to have that ability to say, okay: if Elias went down the middle, it gives you really good strength down the middle, but you’re also not taking a step backwards in trying to fit somebody in a top nine role, which maybe their skill set isn’t suited for. I think now with the additions we do have, our coaches…have some different options available to them to move some people in and out, and up and down, the lineup.”
Maybe that’s just lip service and Lindholm spends most of the coming season in his regular spot on the right side. But if Calgary does end up moving Lindholm to centre, where is Bennett’s natural fit down the middle? Maybe they move Ryan to the wing? While I don’t love the idea, many at FlamesNation have suggested trying Monahan on the wing. Perhaps it would it mean a trade is coming?
The point I’m illustrating is it would take some significant lineup creativity to have both Lindholm and Bennett at centre next year. That said, I still believe it’s a worthwhile thing for the Flames to investigate. Prior to Bennett’s outstanding post-season, I can guarantee you I wouldn’t have thought that.