There is absolutely no denying that Sam Bennett is a massive fan favourite. He is almost the epitome of what Flames fans want and love in a player. Bit of an underdog, large amounts of truculence, tons of talent, and an impressive facial hair growing ability that makes everyone jealous.
Since being drafted fourth overall in 2014, Bennett has enamoured himself with a large amount of the C of Red. Scoring during the 2014-15 playoff run and going on to make the team the next season, fans have been waiting for Bennett to be the next best thing in Calgary.
Unfortunately for Bennett, and fans, heading into his fifth full NHL season, Bennett is still largely a big question mark for the Flames. He has no consistent linemates, his utilization is across the board, and he frankly hasn’t really done a ton to earn himself more opportunities than he already has been granted.
Call it fair, call it treason, but frankly Bennett is in one of the weirdest positions compared to his teammates. During Tuesday’s game against the Flyers, we said that Sam Bennett is the definition of a love/hate relationship – and it couldn’t be more true.
There are so many things that he does well and not so well, that make it very difficult to really figure out what Bennett brings to the table. Don’t believe me? Look for yourself:
One of the most notorious aspects of Bennett’s game would have to be his physical presence he exhibits on the ice. He is by no means an enforcer a la Milan Lucic, but fits a perfect niche in his own rights that highlights his physical capabilities. Although the game is moving away from these types of players, a combination of skill and power have become quite valuable.
Bennett fits this role well. Over the previous three seasons, Bennett has amassed a total of 388 registered hits, which puts him second on the team with players over 500 minutes played.
This season so far, he has registered 19 hits in just seven games played, which also puts him second on the team. The sheer number of hits has made him a player to watch out for the ice, as you never know who he could register a hit on next.
Bennett not only dishes it out, but also takes a lot of hits in the process. Over the same three year time period, Bennett was third on the team with total number of hits taken at 234. So while he is out there dishing it out, he’s also taking a bunch back – fitting his hard-nose style of play. He also registered nine fights over the past three seasons as well, which some fans absolutely still love to see.
Is there a quantification methodology as to how physical play impacts specific parts of the game? Not quite, which makes the tangible impact hard to measure. That being said, having Bennett out there is a force that his teammates, and fans, appreciate.
However with his physical style of play, Bennett is often careless with his aggressiveness. This carelessness leads to a wealth of issues, primarily ending up in the penalty box as a result. Easily the most frustrating part of Bennett’s game is that more often than not, he finds himself in the box.
Over the last three seasons, Bennett has taken a total of 92 penalties: 81 minors, nine majors, and two misconducts. He’s first on the team during that time, leading in total penalties and minor penalties as well. It’s clear that Bennett is in a league of his own in terms of penalties taken, some of which have been extremely costly (see last week’s game against the Kings for example). The timing and frequency of his penalties can hinder the momentum the team has, and has become a concern for Flames fans.
The counter argument to this would be that he also draws a lot of penalties, and this is true to an extent. For example, the best comparison here would be Matthew Tkachuk who follows closely behind Bennett with 83 penalties taken over the three year period:
|2016 – 2019||Penalties Taken||Penalties Drawn|
Obviously, Bennett supporters would say that he ranked third on his team over that time period in terms of penalties drawn at 72 behind Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau. That is a great place to be, but his differential (-20) is much different than Tkachuk (+43) and Gaudreau (+92). Additionally, Tkachuk gets it done on both ends of the ice, allowing for the team’s appetite for the number of penalties he takes to be much larger than Bennett’s. So yes he has been able to draw the third highest number of penalties, but his differential still kills the team.
Love: Defensive Mindset and off the puck play
Something else that Bennett does well is he has adapted his game to more of a defensive niche in the NHL. He’s not quite a Selke-calibre player, but he’s been able to perform better in his own end as his career has progressed.
In addition to the physical play mentioned, Bennett sits fourth among forwards in terms of takeaways with 122, and sits tied for the team lead in shots blocked over the past three seasons. His feisty play leads him to steal a bunch of pucks and also block a ton of them in the same breath. The shot blocking sentiment could lead one to believe that Bennett is simply in his own zone more often than not which really isn’t the case.
Bennett posted a positive possession rating at 51.6% at 5v5, which put him 11th on the team in forwards. It’s not on the same level as some of his teammates, but he hasn’t been drowning in his own zone.
Hate: Offensive Execution and play with the puck
Although his defensive play is admirable, his offensive play is the complete opposite trend.
Starting with his point production, it’s been far from what the Flames had expected when they drafted him fourth overall:
Now this of course is not meant to simply criticize his lack of production, but just highlight the fact that over the course of his career, his stats dropped after his rookie season and have levelled out at just under 30 points. For a third line winger that is now making $2.55M per season, is that an acceptable amount? It obviously could be more. Last season saw his highest PPG, at 0.38, but there should be more especially when looking at his advanced stats.
Over the past three seasons, which does not include his rookie year, Bennett has posted a SH% of 9.39% which puts him 13th on the list of forwards with at least 500 minutes played. That being said over the same period, he had registered the sixth most shots at 394. So there is a simple lack of finish from Bennett that he is so desperately missing to get on the score sheet.
It’s possible that he hasn’t been lucky, especially when he’s posting the second-worst PDO on the team over the past three years at 0.975. But it’s also tough to unequivocally state that he has been “unlucky” for three years.
Additionally, Bennett has been given ample opportunity to capitalize on his offensive shortcomings. Over the three year period noted, Bennett has started 63.7% of his time in the offensive zone. This was the fourth highest among Flames forwards, which shows that even with two different coaches, Bennett was still given tons of opportunity to start in the attacking end. He’s also generated the fourth most rush attempts and fifth most rebounds generated over that time, which shows he’s making an effort but simply not finishing at all.
Hate: his 2019-20 start
The most concerning aspect of Bennett’s game right now is how he has started this current season:
|2016-2019 at 5v5 (Team Rank)||CF%||SCF%||HDCF%||xGF%|
After signing his most recent contract this summer, many have expected big things out of #93. So far that is not the case. He has registered a lone assist, which came in the first game of the season, and currently ranks dead last in CF%, SCF%, and HDCF% among all forwards that have played this season. He is third last in xGF%, but still a far cry from his previous results. He has also registered the most minor penalties through seven games (four), but has yet to draw any.
Is it a small sample size? Sure. Is it concerning nonetheless? Absolutely. His numbers are not only bad so far, they are downright terrible and it’s been noticeable. Yes, his physical play has made an impact, but it’s concerning to see such terrible early returns. There is tons of time to change this, but a recent demotion from the second line, to third line, to now the fourth line shows that the coaching staff is taking notice as well.
So what is it?
There is no definitive answer to what Bennett is to the Flames. I personally love Bennett as a Flame for many reasons that aren’t hockey related, but when it comes to the on-ice performance it’s the complete opposite. Now just because he takes lots of minor penalties, isn’t able to consistently contribute offensively, and is having a tough start to the season doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be considered to be a fan favourite.
That will never change – people love a good moustache.
But Bennett should also be judged similarly to the rest of his teammates in where just because he is a favourite, doesn’t mean his shortcomings should be ignored. If a load of criticism is being placed on another player for similar results, then it’s time to face the facts that Bennett may need to up his game similarly.
With his style of play and development track pretty much figured out, he’s always going to be in the love/hate category. You may hate the things that he can and can’t do on the ice, but you’ll love him for the things that matter in the end.
Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images