It has been a weird last week for the Calgary Flames. Last Saturday (January 30th), midway through the game against Montreal, Elliotte Friedman reported that Sam Bennett had requested a trade out of Calgary. The Flames won that game 2-0 and Bennett played primarily with Mikael Backlund and Josh Leivo.
On Monday (February 1st), Coach Geoff Ward shuffled his lines against Winnipeg mid-game and put Bennett with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. This lasted for all of two shifts but was the start of a bigger process.
The Flames did the same again the next night (February 2nd), shuffling Bennett with Gaudreau and Monahan again mid-game. This time for five shifts, all of which they started in the offensive zone.
Then on February 4th, Bennett was scratched, leading most to believe a trade was imminent and that he had played his final game with the Flames. This was clearly not the case as Bennett then played again on Saturday night (February 5th) against the Edmonton Oilers. He started and played the entire game with the dynamic duo.
Gaudreau – Monahan – Bennett
Let’s take a dive into how this line has looked together, using data from Natural Stat Trick. To learn more about the stats in the chart below, please check out our primer.
This is… not good. For a line that starts most of their shifts in the offensive zone, they are clearly unable to generate chances in the offensive zone. Although Monahan has only won 45% of his draws so far this season, even when they win the faceoff, they are not generating any real chances. Then, when the puck is in their own zone, this line struggles defensively.
It has been four games of them together for real stretches and chemistry takes time to develop, but the line has never looked great together. Even in the last game in which they had two goals, their advanced stats numbers were below 50% in every category.
The two goals that they did score both came off a rush, and frankly were due to Gaudreau’s brilliance more than anything else. Gaudreau’s goal came from a great pass from Monahan down the wing and a laser that beat Mikko Koskinen up high. The Bennett goal came when Chris Tanev put the puck behind the net for Gaudreau to feed Bennett wide open right in front.
Neither goal came from any sustained zone presence and outside of those two goals, the line looked listless through much of the game. While some may look at it as a goal is a goal, the line was on the ice for one goal against, six scoring chances against, and two high danger chances against. This is not a recipe for success.
Monahan and Gaudreau need to have a linemate who can help them create chances in the offensive zone. They are offensive players and naturally struggle when forced to defend, which is why they have been getting the lion’s share of offensive zone starts. To paint a clearer picture of the problem here, let’s take a look at the numbers when Gaudreau and Monahan are not out there with Bennett.
Gaudreau – Monahan –
|Gaudreau & Monahan w/o Bennett||107.04||54.3%||55.0%||52.6%||48.5%||66.7%||59.5%|
Although it is a much larger sample size, Gaudreau and Monahan clearly look better without Bennett. Whether they are with Andrew Mangiapane, Dominik Simon, Josh Leivo, Dillon Dube or anyone else, the Flames’ dynamic duo just looks better without Bennett than they do with him.
Do they need more time?
One of the big arguments that defenders of Bennett have made is that he was never given a chance as a top six guy. Remember, Bennett was the Flames’ highest ever draft pick, and put up 91 points in junior playing for the Kingston Frontenacs. Bennett is not a bottom six grinder, he is an elite offensive superstar who never got his chance, in the eyes of some fans.
But over the time he has been with the Flames, he has played over 150 minutes with the Gaudreau and Monahan, and together the line has never been above 50% CF. When playing together, Bennett has not been the piece that has given Monahan and Gaudreau the best chance to succeed, and when the team has to shelter this line with an enormous amount of offensive zone starts, it means the rest of the team has to do more of the heavy lifting defensively. This may help this line look better, but the team suffers as a whole.
The Flames have given Bennett plenty of chances to succeed with this top group, and what’s happening is his presence on this line is pulling his linemates down. Is Bennett a bad player? No; he can be an effective player when put in the right situations. He is probably one of the better top bottom six guys on the team, and is great at creating chances in minimal minutes against other teams’ bottom line guys. As far as bottom six guys go across the league, he is a net producer despite of the number of penalties he takes.
The problem is he isn’t the player the Flames thought they would get at fourth overall. He is not a top line winger who can be as successful at the NHL level as he was at the junior level. But hey, that’s ok. Not every player needs to be a top six guy, and the Flames are blessed with lots of options. From the emergence of Mangiapane and Dube to the continued excellence of Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk, there are enough top six guys to go around. The Flames can mess around with who should play with 13 and 23 until they get it right.
It just isn’t Sam Bennett, and this experiment needs to end. While they did score two goals last game, they generated chances at a comparably terrible rate and were hemmed in their own zone for long stretches of the game. Were it not for the impressive work of Jacob Markstrom, they could have been on the receiving end of many more goals against. It is time for a change on the top line. Dillon Dube, anyone?