This past weekend’s Hockey Night in Canada matchup between the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens saw the Flames break a three game losing streak in emphatic fashion with a 2-0 shutout win.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t even close to being the biggest Flames story of the weekend.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman dropped an absolute bombshell when he reported that Sam Bennett had requested a trade out of Calgary. The news was delivered directly from Bennett’s agent, Darren Ferris, to Friedman, and this was the first public report of the request.
Since then, there have been reports that the Bennett didn’t request a trade, or the Flames didn’t know about it, and that has cast some doubt around the whole situation. However, this is mere conjecture, and one thing is known for certain: Ferris is on the record stating Bennett wants out.
This is complicated.
The season is underway and Bennett is already playing an important role in Calgary’s middle six. At the end of the season, he will be a restricted free agent (RFA) as opposed to an unrestricted free agent (UFA), leaving him little leverage to force a move.
The ongoing pandemic makes it much more difficult to trade out of division, as the Jets are showing with Pierre-Luc Dubois, and on top of all of that, Bennett is a valued member of the locker room and lauded as a great teammate. Trading the highest pick in franchise history, and Brad Treliving’s first ever draft pick for the Flames, is no easy task.
How did we get here?
For Bennett, his time with the Flames started with a bang but ended with a whimper. Brought in to play in the 2015 playoff run, he was quickly lauded as the next franchise player for the organization and quickly became a fan favorite.
Instead of going from the OHL to the AHL, Bennett jumped straight into the NHL, putting up 18 goals and 18 assists in 77 games as a rookie. He averaged about 15 minutes of icetime a night, and was a decent player for the Flames in his first season.
From there the wheels began to come off the bus. While his underlying numbers have never been horrible by any stretch, he did not look like the player that he was in junior, and his ice time began to suffer. Bennett got looks with top players on the team like Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, but nothing sustained and nothing that gave him enough of a chance to show that he belonged. He ended up finding himself in the bottom six, playing with the likes of Derek Ryan and Mark Jankowski.
The one time that he has shown glimpses of greatness has been in the playoffs, where Playoff Sam Bennett comes to play. He was one of the few engaged players when the team was beaten by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2019 playoffs, and the again in the 2020 playoffs, while playing on a line with Milan Lucic and Dillon Dube. That line was the story of the playoffs for the Flames, and Bennett was a key driver of that group.
Going into this season, there was a hope that the team would try to give Bennett another chance to see if he could translate his playoff form into the regular season, but right from day one, newcomers Josh Leivo and Dominik Simon were penned into the top-six, and Bennett was once again relegated to the bottom-six. This is where he has typically remained so far this season.
Why is Bennett frustrated?
For Bennett, he had to be fed up with how he’s been deployed by the Flames. We know that the way he’s been utilized has been a point of contention in the past, specifically with how the Flames didn’t commit to trying him down the middle and instead relegated him to the wing early in his career.
On top of that, being constantly passed on the depth chart has to be a concern. While nobody is guaranteed top line minutes, there has to have been some expectation that he would have gotten increased responsibility after his incredible playoff performance last year. Instead, he has averaged just 14 minutes per night playing mostly on the third line.
Finally, Bennett was drafted as an offensive superstar for Kingston, putting up 91 points in his draft year. There was some hope that he would be a fit with the Flames top group. However, he has played a grand total of 150 combined minutes with Monahan and Gaudreau. On the one hand, they have not looked good together, but on the other hand, this is over six seasons now, and Bennett never had a chance to develop chemistry with the two. One would imagine that all three of these factored into Bennett’s decision to look for a new home.
Why are the Flames frustrated?
On the Flames’ side of things, there’s a good reason for everything. At the end of the day, Bennett has been two sides of a coin. In the playoffs, he’s an absolute bull. He goes hard every single shift, toes the line well, creates emotional momentum for the team, and elevates his game to the level that makes the players around him succeed in the postseason.
In the regular season though, he’s a shadow of that. Bennett is mediocre at best, failing to even put up 30 points on a consistent basis, taking horrible, avoidable offensive zone penalties, trying to pull off the same toe drag deke every game, and generally not providing much positive values to the team. Bennett has a negative penalty differential in all but one season in his career.
It’s hard watching a player do that, especially a player that you had such high hopes for being the highest pick in franchise history.
They tried him at centre, and it didn’t work. They tried him with Gaudreau and Monahan, and it didn’t work. They tried him with Mikael Backlund, and it didn’t work. It’s hard to reward someone with more ice time when they keep taking stupid penalties and missing the net. Does it hurt to see Leivo and Simon in the top six ahead of you? Maybe, but Bennett had ample opportunity to prove he belonged there and he proved the opposite: he doesn’t.
In Bennett’s entire career, he has played with almost everyone, but his second most common linemate is Backlund and his fourth most common is Gaudreau. Almost across the board, his teammates play better without him than with him.
If the team can suffer through Regular Season Sam Bennett and make the playoffs though, Playoff Sam Bennett seems to always deliver. Unfortunately, you have to get to the playoffs to play in them, and his yo-yo play is too much to handle. The Flames did what they could with Bennett, but it just didn’t work out. Cut your losses and move on.
WHere do we go from here?
What makes this situation even more complex is that Bennett is playing the best regular season hockey of his career. The last game against Winnipeg specifically was phenomenal. Bennett led the team in individual expected goals, corsi chances, scoring chances, high danger chances, and hits. His on-ice numbers were downright staggering.
These numbers are insane, and Bennett was an invaluable member of the team in last night’s win. The problem is that he doesn’t bring this type of performance on a consistent basis. On most nights, he’s a detriment to the team and does more harm than good.
These flashes of brilliance make it so, so hard to trade him away though, because he does have the ability to be a real difference maker on the ice.
Bennett is not Dubois. He’s not going to pout his way out of town, or sleepwalk through a game to force his GM’s hand. Bennett will probably go at 110% for as long as he possibly can to prove that he’s a consumate professional, a great teammate, and a great hockey player. He’s going to make it very hard for Treliving to trade him away, and that’s just how Bennett is wired.
Unfortunately, it’s just not enough. Bennett’s value is probably higher right now than it’s been in years, and this is the time to trade him. It’s tough, but it’s necessary. At a certain point, it’s too many offensive zone penalties, it’s too many turnovers, it’s too many missed passes and missed shots. The Sam Bennett experience didn’t work out in Calgary, but hopefully it does somewhere else.