At the 2014 NHL Draft, the Calgary Flames got lucky. Needing another top-flight forward to complement 2013 pick Sean Monahan (and 2011 pick Johnny Gaudreau, who had just gone pro), the Flames saw the top-ranked North American skater drop into their laps. In the midst of some snickering about his inability to do pull-ups at the NHL’s annual draft combine, the Flames selected Sam Bennett at fourth overall – their highest draft pick since moving to Calgary in 1980.
After a 2014-15 season derailed by shoulder surgery, Bennett made his NHL debut as an 18-year-old in the final game of the season and played throughout the playoffs. His high level of play given his age gave rise to broadcasters nicknaming him “18-Year-Old Sam Bennett,” subsequently amended the next season when he turned 19 and played a full season with the Flames. Playing primarily on the left wing alongside Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, Bennett put up 18 goals and 36 points as a rookie that mostly played at even-strength.
Now a 20-year-old, Bennett seems excited for his second full season in the NHL. He noted that without having to worry about any mid-summer prospect camps, he was able to focus on training. He’s said to have gained 10 pounds of muscle in the off-season
“This is the best I’ve ever felt coming into a season,” said Bennett. “I’m definitely excited about this year. I don’t really have any personal goals, but I want to be in every situation, I want to be relied on and I guess that’s my goal for this year.”
After old Flames coach Bob Hartley began the process late last season, new coach Glen Gulutzan has embraced transitioning Bennett to duty as a full-time center. Following a preseason game, Gulutzan noted that putting Bennett onto the penalty kill was an effective way of rounding out his defensive game.
“I think it’s important for young players, especially a guy like Benny, to penalty kill as much as they can because if he’s going to play (and he is playing) center in the National Hockey League, it makes you a better player when you have to go out there for 30 seconds and you’re committed to the details of the game on the defensive side,” said Gulutzan, via FlamesNation.
For his part, Bennett agreed with his new coach.
“I think just playing in those PK situations, just naturally you’re more aware of the defensive zone and obviously on the PK that’s your whole focus, to prevent a goal,” said Bennett. “Just being more aware when I’m on the PK is going to help me on five-on-five as well.”
A Breakout Year?
In the 2016 preseason, Bennett was placed into a situation which he hadn’t experienced since junior; due to the absence of Monahan due to a back injury and Mikael Backlund due to a concussion, Bennett was (by default) Calgary’s top center. He seemed to relish the opportunity, combining with Troy Brouwer and Matthew Tkachuk to form the Flames’ top exhibition line.
“I’m super confident this year,” said Bennett. “It’s nice in preseason, it looked like I was on a lot of power play, a lot of penalty kill. To be relied on, that’s huge for my confidence and I want to be that guy. I want to be in those situations. It’s awesome that I’m being put in those situations.”
Related – Calgary Flames 2016-17 Season Preview
Last season, the Flames handled Bennett with kid gloves. He was sheltered and given favourable linemates. In 2016-17, he’ll be relied upon to drive play and provide his teammates with the shelter that he once enjoyed. Based on his impressive preseason results, he seems well up to the challenge.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.