One of the most interesting storylines around the Flames this season was the Sam Bennett Saga. He went from playing on the fourth line to the first line, from the centre to the wing and back again, from in the lineup to out of it, and from a fan favourite in the playoffs to probably the most divisive figure in the organization. At the trade deadline, the Flames moved Bennett to the Florida Panthers for a 2022 second round pick and Emil Heineman, a second round pick in 2020.
Bennett made a splash when he arrived with the Panthers, putting up 15 points in 10 games while playing as the team’s second line centre. He sat down with Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek to discuss why this worked so well.
Why is it working in Florida
The biggest question around Bennett this season has been why has it been working so well in Florida this season. Friedman asked the question and Bennett’s response was this:
“It’s been the opportunity. I’ve gotten way more ice time than I ever got in Calgary. I got put on the power play, I play penalty kill now. I’ve got a team that believes in me and I think the coaching staff believes in me here, and you know that’s nice as a player to feel that, and to have a team rely on you and I’ve been fortunate to take advantage of it early. Obviously I know it’s a [small] sample size… but that belief in me has really given me my confidence back. Obviously, I’ve always known I could produce in this league and be an effective top six forward, so to be able to go out there and do that… it’s been a lot of fun”Sam Bennett 31 Thoughts: The Podcast
Wow there’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s talk ice time. Bennett mentioned that he is getting a lot more ice time now that he is in Florida, along with power play and penalty kill minutes. Through 11 games including the first playoff game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Bennett averaged 18.16 of ice time and hit the 20 minute mark five times. In his six seasons with the Flames, Bennett managed to hit the 20 minute mark just once – against the Dallas Stars in game four of last year’s playoffs. The last time he hit 18 minutes in a regular season game was on November 30, 2018 in a 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings.
Bennett is also seeing more time on the power play in his new home. With the exception of his first and second games in Florida, Bennett has seen at least 1:30 of power play ice time per game, and in some games, he has been on for over five minutes of power play time. For reference, Bennett got similar amounts of power play ice time for the Flames in January, but saw a major drop off when the calendar turned to February. By March, it was the odd game where he saw more than a minute of power play time. He averaged just 35 seconds per game this season with the Flames, while averaging 3:29 with the Panthers.
It’s a similar story on the penalty kill, where Bennett averaged about 45 seconds per game with the Flames. With the Panthers, he’s averaging over a minute and a half. However, for the Flames, it’s hard to look back and make the case to increase his ice time, both at 5v5 and on special teams. Players need to perform well in limited ice time to justify getting more of it. There are only 60 minutes in a game, and teams have to divide that time by the 12 forwards that they have, and giving ice time to those playing better increases the odds of winning. The fact of the matter is that Bennett’s production did not justify him seeing more time on the ice, either at 5v5 or on special teams.
The final part of this quote is about how his coaches and teammates believe in him in Florida. Friedman followed up by asking if he felt that his coaches did not believe in him in Calgary. Here is his response:
“I feel like they did early and then as my time went on, I kinda got put in a different role than where I probably would’ve like to have been. I guess that’s how it goes. Over time younger guys and newer guys are gonna get the opportunity early, and the guys who are who have been there a while they might get pushed down and forgotten a little bit, and I think that might have happened to me a little bit.”Sam Bennett 31 Thoughts The Podcast
This is really interesting that he felt forgotten about. While it’s hard to quantify belief in a player, it’s hard to believe this to be 100% true given how much people talked about him over the course of his whole time in Calgary. The Flames moved him around constantly over his time in Calgary, playing him on every line, with almost everyone on the team. He played both centre and on the wing, both left and right, and on every line from top to bottom. It feels like the Flames maybe thought too much about him as opposed to not enough.
The hard part about the world of professional hockey is that while players have a contract with a team, they are not necessarily guaranteed a specific spot in the lineup. That is earned. The Flames signed James Neal for $5.75 million per season, but that did not guarantee him top minutes. The same for Bennett, who, while being the highest draft pick in the organization, was not guaranteed to be a top six centre. And while the hope was that he would be able to supplant either Mikael Backlund or Sean Monahan, he wasn’t able to in Calgary.
What does it all mean?
This segment sounds like a player who lacked confidence while in Calgary. Whether because of an internal concern or not receiving enough external validation, something did not work for Bennett in Calgary. Are there learnings here? Absolutely there are. Within the organization, there was likely a discussion around what exactly went wrong and how they might fix it for the next crop of prospects. Do the Flames need to be easier on their players? Do they need to find mentally tougher players? Is it a generational issue? We will likely never know.
What we do know is this – it did not work with Bennett in Calgary, and the Flames’ GM Brad Treliving needed to make a deal to trade him. Even Bennett accepted that this is a small sample size, and Flames fans know that he can look very good when the chips are down. However, in a couple of seasons when he has put together a solid sample in Florida or wherever he ends up, and when the Flames have some idea of what Emil Heineman and their 2022 second round pick turn out to be, it’ll be interesting to look back to see how the Flames did on this trade. The Flames have typically done quite well in the second round, finding Rasmus Andersson, Dillon Dube, and Oliver Kylington. Here’s hoping Heineman and their 2022 pick become impact NHLers.
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