A year ago, the Calgary Flames made history twice. First, they drafted sixth overall – tying the club record for the highest pick ever since moving to Calgary – and selected center Sean Monahan from the Ottawa 67s. Next, they surprised the hockey world by going against conventional wisdom and starting Monahan’s season in the National Hockey League rather than return him to the OHL.
The 19-year-old scored 6 goals and 9 points in his 9-game trial, basically forcing the Flames to keep him in the NHL despite the unlikelihood that level of production would continue. To nobody’s surprise that level of production didn’t continue, and he had 16 goals and 25 points over the remainder of the season. However, the club looks at his level of preparation for this season – he’s stronger and better equipped to face an 82-game schedule – and probably sees the season as a prudent investment in Monahan’s future, and likely believe he wouldn’t have progressed as much in the OHL.
In the case of Bennett and Monahan, their singular focus on making the NHL roster is perhaps the only thing these OHL products have in common despite playing the same position. And their differences are the main factors complicating the team’s decision regarding whether to send Bennett back to the OHL or give him a 9-game audition in the big league.
First off, their age and experience vary considerably. Monahan was born in October 1994 and turned 19 during the first week of his rookie campaign after being selected as one of the older players in the 2013 NHL Draft class. By contrast, Bennett turned 18 the week before the 2014 Draft and won’t turn 19 until just before the 2014 Draft – meaning he’ll be just 18 years old for the entire 2014-15 season. As a consequence of this difference in age, Monahan has played a lot more hockey than Bennett has at this point – Bennett’s played 117 OHL games compared to Monahan’s 185.
Secondly, partially because of their different body types (but also because of their age difference), Sean Monahan was a lot more physically developed last season than Bennett is right now. Monahan played the 2013-14 weighing in the vicinity of 200 pounds, which allowed him to withstand the bumps and bruises that go along with a lengthy NHL schedule. Bennett’s charitably listed at 180 pounds by the NHL, and he’s not particularly wide-bodied. He’s been adept at dangling between defenders thus far in the pre-season, but the majority of them have been bodies slated for the AHL.
However, the other aspect of the team’s decision relates to Bennett’s playing style. The more physically-developed Monahan had the benefit of using his size to his advantage, but also played a more straight-ahead north-south game. To get to the net, Monahan would attempt to barrel through. On the other hand, Bennett boasts a lot more sizzle and flair to his game, and relies more on finesse, speed and an occasional east-west slant to his game to generate offensive production.
One of the X-factors in the Bennett decision is the recent injury to Calgary’s top center, Mikael Backlund. Backlund typically plays the toughest minutes on the team, and is one of the few true puck possession driving players on the Flames roster. His absence will sting, but keeping Bennett until Backlund’s return would ease the pain that the fanbase would feel via the absence of one of the team’s top players. And Backlund’s eventual return could provide a natural “out” for the club to shield Bennett from the pressure of a long NHL campaign (and temporarily free up a spot at the center position for Bennett to play). Backlund is back skating and his injury is expected to be relatively short-term.
Should the Calgary Flames keep Sam Bennett? Just like last year, the conventional wisdom is “no.” He’s not just 18, he’s a super-young 18 and will be that age all season long.
Will the Flames keep Sam Bennett? Last year the conventional wisdom advised against keeping Sean Monahan, and the Calgary Flames summarily ignored those recommendations, and Monahan ended up being a key contributor for the club. With so little for the team’s fans to get excited about on a rebuilding team, and the opportunity to give Bennett a short-term audition with very little pressure while Backlund recovers, the team may once again decide to put on their blinders and do what they want to do, rather than what the hockey world thinks they should do.
But the odds are against it working anywhere near as well as it did with Sean Monahan.