Sam Bennett looked a step behind the competition in Calgary’s opener of the Young Stars prospects tournament in Penticton.
Well, more like a half-step behind.
Either way, the Flames’ top pick, 4th overall, in this June’s NHL draft didn’t take long to catch up.
Bennett did earn an assist in his professional debut, a token helper on Josh Jooris’ empty-net goal to secure Calgary’s 6-4 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Friday evening. But he rarely threatened to reach the scoresheet in that contest, skating on a line with Morgan Klimchuk, a 2013 first-rounder, and Austin Carroll, a seventh-rounder as an over-ager this year. Centering the two heavy wingers from the WHL, Bennett’s only real impact was a wallpapering check that left Winnipeg defenceman Nikolas Brouillard a little wobbly.
In his defence, Bennett got better as that game wore on. He was probably a bit rusty having not played since the spring, combined with some nerves from pulling on the flaming ‘C’ for the first time against an opposing team.
Flash forward to the next night, in his first taste of the Battle of Alberta, and Bennett was arguably the best player on the ice against the rival Edmonton Oilers, scoring a nice wraparound goal and assisting on another in a 4-3 loss Saturday. He tied for the team lead with five shots on net and generated several quality chances for his new linemates, Johnny Gaudreau and Michael Ferland. That trio, all projected to push for roster spots in Calgary over the next month, were dangerous throughout with Bennett being the driving force from start to finish.
“As soon as players get used to the pace and how things happen a little bit quicker, both in regards to the speed of the game and moving the puck, elite players can raise their level,” said Ryan Huska, who is coaching Calgary’s prospects in Penticton and will have many of them in Glens Falls, N.Y., with the AHL’s Adirondack Flames this season. “I think you’ll continually see that from a player like Sam. Every game he’s in, I do anticipate him gaining more confidence and getting better and better. That’s typically what you see from younger players who have that ability.”
Bennett isn’t eligible to play for Adirondack this year or next year, so he’ll either call Calgary home this winter or be returned to the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs. Flames GM Brad Treliving has repeatedly indicated the latter is more likely, perhaps trying to take the focus, or at least the pressure, off Bennett during pre-season play.
The Vancouver Canucks are also taking a long look at a couple of juniors on the cusp of turning pro. Hunter Shinkaruk, the 24th overall pick in 2013, is old enough to play for the AHL’s Utlica Comets but is hoping to crack Vancouver’s roster out of training camp. He’s been paired in Penticton with Bo Horvat, who was selected 9th in the same draft but is facing the same predicament as Bennett because he’s six months younger than Shinkaruk. Horvat, the player Vancouver took with the pick it got from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for goaltender Cory Schneider, must make the Canucks or else be reassigned to the London Knights for a fourth OHL season.
“Bo and I have been through a lot together in these last two years, drafted on the same day and signed on the first day,” said Shinkaruk, who scored twice in a losing cause Sunday as Vancouver fell 5-4 in overtime to Winnipeg. “We’ve created a pretty good chemistry and when they put us together, it’s definitely exciting. We get really jacked up for that opportunity, and I thought we played well.”
Huska is also making the jump from junior after 12 years with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, including the last seven as head coach. His adjustment to the pro ranks hasn’t been too daunting thus far.
“They’re still hockey players,” he said. “They want to know what’s expected of them, they want to be held accountable and, at this stage in particular, they are all looking to impress, so they are working as hard as they can.”
The Flames (1-0-1-0) close out the Young Stars tournament today, 5:30 p.m. PT against the host Canucks (0-0-2-0). Edmonton (2-0-0-0) will attempt to stay unbeaten in its 11:30 a.m. finale against Winnipeg (1-1-0-0).
Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.