Is Playing Sam Bennett a Good Move?

The surprise announcement before game one last Wednesday was that Sam Bennett, the fourth overall draft pick in the 2014 NHL draft, would be in the starting lineup for the Flames. In just his second NHL game, the 18-year-old logged almost 15 minutes of ice time, recorded four shots on net, and had the second assist on Kris Russell’s game winning goal. He looked feisty, mature, and undaunted by the thousands of white towels waving all around him.

It’s funny to remember that Bennett was ridiculed in the media after failing to complete a single chin-up at the 2014 NHL scouting combine. As it turned out, he was hiding a shoulder injury that would later require surgery and keep him sidelined for the majority of the 2014/2015 regular season.

“There was many reports the kid was not a good worker and couldn’t do pull-ups,” Hartley told Aaron Vickers yesterday. “When your shoulder is broken in pieces but you won’t tell no one because you are a competitor and you want to be there, that speaks volumes about his character.”

Bennett has shown he can put up big numbers in the OHL. He played only 11 games for the Kingston Frontenacs this season due to injury, but in those 11 games, he recorded 11 goals and 24 points; in 57 games in the 2013/2014 season he had 36 goals and 91 points. He’s also a player that seems well acquainted with the penalty box. In 128 games in the OHL he’s logged 219 PIM. After observing him in Wednesday’s game, this is not surprising. Bennett is a chippy, truculent player, someone whose style of play and scoring touch should add another dimension to a Flames team presently loaded with finesse players.

Here’s what Craig Button, Dave Reid, and Jamie McLennan had to say about Bennett at last year’s draft:

Is it a Smart Move?

Now that game one is over, that the flames are leading the series 1-0, and that Bennett looked impressive in his playoff debut, Bob Hartley and whoever else was responsible for moving Bennett into the lineup look like geniuses—just like Aaron Ward is now a guru among NHL analysts for picking the Flames to make the playoffs against all odds at the beginning of the year.

But I—like many others, I’m sure—had my reservations after first hearing rumors that Bennett was going to get the start.

For one, to thrust an 18-year-old kid with no experience into an NHL playoff game seems crazy, especially when you expect him to play significant minutes on the second line and power play. Throughout the season, Bob Hartley has practiced a system that requires his players to earn their ice time by consistently playing well. He has not shied away from benching some of his best players for underperforming—let’s not forget that Gaudreau was a healthy scratch at one point this season and played significantly fewer minutes during the first quarter of the year than he does now. For Hartley to quickly show that much confidence in Bennett, then, seems unusual of the Flames’ bench boss to say the least.

The player whose spot Bennett took was Mason Raymond. By no means has Raymond had a good year; the 29-year-old had 12 goals and 23 points in 57 games this season, a plus-minus rating of -8, and finished the year without having scored a goal in 17 games. Still, that he was the flame to get the axe seems surprising. Raymond has plenty of playoff experience on a young team that doesn’t. I would’ve much sooner expected Bennett to replace someone like Michael Ferland, a rookie who, to my mind, has looked no better than average in the 26 games he’s played this season.

Everything about this move seemed utterly bizarre and uncharacteristic of the Flames, but here’s what happened last Wednesday: Bennett looked amazing, the Flames did not seem to miss Raymond, and, as if he heard me talking about how average he’s been, Ferland had a beauty of an assist on David Jones’s goal.

What else can you say? Nice move, Bob.