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Future centre depth is bright, but Sam Bennett should go back to junior

Not only is there no room for him in the Flames lineup, but he's probably just not ready.

"Let's have a photo with dramatic lighting against this white brick wall." ???
"Let's have a photo with dramatic lighting against this white brick wall." ???
Jeff Zelevansky

Yesterday I wrote a bit about how the Flames should look at centre this upcoming season, and hinted at how the future is bright in that position. I also wrote a snippet on Sam Bennett, and how he should probably go back to junior. It's sure to be one of the biggest stories come training camp in a few weeks, so here's a more in-depth look at the situation.

First, let's just say this: if things go well, and it's not out of reason to think they will, the Flames could be a very scary team down the middle by the time they're ready to compete. However the future lineup shakes out, they'll have Bennett, Sean Monahan, and Mikael Backlund down the middle: fourth and sixth overall picks for good reason, and one of the best possession centres in the NHL. All three have scoring talent, although it stands to reason that whoever slots in the third line position will get less ice time, and therefore, fewer chances to score.

Centre depth really, really helps when you're trying to win Cups, though. Just look at the Kings, who may just have the best centre depth in the entire league, and the Blackhawks: four of the past five Cup winners. It's a really good thing to have, and the Flames are really building down the middle.

Bennett compares to Doug Gilmour, Monahan compares to Jonathan Toews, and Backlund compares to someone like Patrice Bergeron. Now imagine all three, down the middle, on the same team. Awesome, right? Hell yes, awesome.

All three still have room to grow. Backlund is 25, but only started getting top line ice time in the second half of last season; Monahan will be 20 most of this season, and is coming off a rookie campaign of mixed results; and Bennett, freshly 18, has yet to taste NHL competition.

He may get nine games in before the first year of his probably soon-to-be-signed entry deal kicks in, but it shouldn't go beyond that - or even reach that point. Sven Baertschi was sent back to junior right away for him to get a full season in, and that path would likely be the best for Bennett as well.

There's simply no room

This was touched upon primarily in yesterday's piece, but there really is no room for him. You don't take a kid like Bennett and give him fourth line minutes when he could go back to junior and be top dog. Look at the situations of the three draft picks ahead of him:

  • There's definitely a place for Aaron Ekblad on the Panthers' blueline. They only have six defencemen signed for next season, and among them, only two veterans (Brian Campbell and Willie Mitchell). Ekblad probably has a place amongst the group of kids that will round out the rest of the Panthers' D.
  • The Buffalo Sabres really didn't have much of a lineup to speak of at all last year, and Sam Reinhart could very well be one of their better players out the gate. Notable other centres the Sabres have include Tyler Ennis, Cody Hodgson, and Zemgus Girgensons. Can Reinhart take one of those top three spots? Possibly - and if not, he can play RW as well. That forward group has room for him.
  • The Oilers are, well, the Oilers. The only centres they have listed are Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Boyd Gordon, and Matt Hendricks. That's it. Leon Draisaitl may very well make that lineup simply by default.
On the Flames, however, Bennett has to compete with Backlund, Monahan, and Matt Stajan, and it's really unlikely he unseats one of those three. The wings are full up as well, with both veterans and prospects ahead of him in development fighting for spots.  It's much better to have him rack up the points in junior than languish away on the fourth line with fourth line talent.

He's too young and too small

Usually, it's just top picks that make the jump from junior to professional leagues immediately. And while Bennett is a top pick, he's not physically on the level of the three taken ahead of him.

  • Ekblad was born February 16, 1996. He's currently listed as 6'4" and 216 lbs.
  • Reinhart was born November 6, 1995. He's currently listed as 6'1" and 185 lbs.
  • Draisaitl was born October 27, 1995. He's currently listed as 6'2" and 204 lbs.
  • Bennett was born June 20, 1996. He's currently listed as 6'0" and 178 lbs.

There are two immediate disparities there that separate Bennett from the top three picks. The first is his birthday.

The cutoff date for every draft is September 15, meaning as long as you turn 18 before that date, you're eligible for that year's draft. For example, last year's top pick, Nathan MacKinnon, has a birthday of September 1, 1995, meaning he was one of the youngest players of the 2013 draft.

Bennett, with a late June birthday, slides towards the younger scale for players in this year's draft. He's essentially nearly a year younger than both Reinhart and Draisaitl. So while those two may step into the league right away, it wouldn't be a problem if Bennett waited a year. That extra year should allow him to develop physically and be able to match up with the two centres taken above him.

The second factor is his size. He's the smallest of the top four picks, both in terms of height and weight. He needs time to develop his body and make sure he doesn't get hurt. Playing in junior against other kids and playing in the NHL against adult professionals are two entirely different things. Ekblad isn't as old as Reinhart and Draisaitl, but he's huge and physically gifted well enough that he should be able to step right into the NHL. Bennett doesn't have that size at 18.

Well, what about Monahan? He stepped in right away

Monahan's birthday is October 12, 1994, meaning he was one of the oldest players in the 2013 NHL draft: out of the top 10 picks, only Seth Jones is older. If he and Bennett had the same draft year, you could look at it as though Monahan was a full year ahead of Bennett in development.

Monahan was also listed as 6'2", 187 lbs. when he was drafted, bigger than Bennett by a decent amount. His size helped him stay with the team full time, and that's size Bennett doesn't have just yet.

Besides, it's still debatable as to whether Monahan should have even spent the year with the Flames. Twenty-two goals is nothing to sneeze at, but he didn't fare too well in sheltered minutes when it came to possession statistics. And did the Flames really gain anything by having him play last season? Which brings us to...

There's no need to burn a year of his ELC

Cheap contracts are actually a hindrance for the Flames right now. They still haven't hit the floor of the salary cap, although upcoming extensions for Lance Bouma and Joe Colborne should take care of that. But when the Flames are ready to compete, cheap contracts are going to be a great thing to have. Look at the Penguins' Cup win in 2009: Evgeni Malkin was still on his entry level deal. Or the Blackhawks in 2010: both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were making far less than they were actually worth.

Playing Monahan last season got rid of one of his cheap years for a season spent getting the Flames their first top-five pick in franchise history. This season isn't likely to be much better. Why throw away one of Bennett's cheap years as well? If the Flames are competitive four years from now, which they very well could be, then that extra year of Bennett on an entry level deal could be invaluable for the extra depth needed to make a run.

In summation

Fourth overall is the highest the Flames have ever picked, and Sam Bennett is likely going to be a very good player for the team. There's a reason he was picked that high, after all. But in both his and the team's best interests, there's no reason to rush him in right away.

He's among the youngest of this draft class, the smallest of the top picks, and the team that took him really doesn't have room for him at this point in time.

He scored 91 points in 57 games in the OHL last season, ninth in the league. Let him build on that and come back for 2015-16 ready to go.