The Calgary Flames don't exactly have a lot of experience in their lineup. It's the second year of a rebuild; rookies have been in and out all season long, whether due to injuries or their own merit. It's just that now, when the stakes are really high, it's the rookies who have ended up leading the way.
The top line couldn't get much going for them in game one against the Vancouver Canucks. They were granted the most starts in the offensive zone - as was expected, since Hartley wants his top scorers to start as close to the net as possible - but some Johnny Gaudreau moments aside, just couldn't seem to get anything going.
Instead, it was the second and third lines who were creating everything for the Flames.
Sam Bennett, gliding on Mikael Backlund's wing, was a force. The two of them, together, were aggressive on the puck. The Canucks' top line of Sedins faltered their efforts. They ripped everyone else apart.
Michael Ferland, who had already become a force to reckon with at the end of the regular season, has found a nice home on the third line. He's already jumped a number of players: Josh Jooris, who has been around all season, albeit perhaps undeservedly so. Markus Granlund, who is not quite NHL ready. Mason Raymond, who was a healthy scratch. And Brandon Bollig, whose job he is about to claim.
Due to contractual situations and league agreements, not to mention general talent, Bennett is definitely in the NHL next season. The 18-year-old rookie in his second-ever professional game was one of the best players on the ice.
Ferland could start his season in the AHL, but if this keeps up, he shouldn't. It's a night and day difference between the Ferland from October, the Ferland from March, and the Ferland of today. Today's Ferland has scrabbled and clawed his way from being on the outskirts of professional hockey to someone who made major impacts in an NHL playoff game.
It's the playoffs, and Ferland has only ramped himself up as the stakes have gotten higher. Okay, so he may be a little emotional, making that premature mistake in dropping the gloves against Derek Dorsett, only to be refused. Here's the thing, though: in the mythical pursuit for a Milan Lucic, that big, tough guy who can score - even if Lucic ain't looking so hot these days - the Flames may have found theirs in this 6'2, 225 lb. almost-23-year-old.
Ferland is big. He'll fight. He threw seven hits in game one, crushing opponents and forcing turnovers. He was in the right place at the right time to capitalize off one of those turnovers, quickly sliding the puck over to David Jones, whom the Canucks defencemen had kindly left a window open for him to shoot through, to earn his first playoff point. He could score in junior. He can score at the AHL level.
At minimum, right now Ferland is looking like a bottom six player who could step up into the top six in case of injury. He's already looking very at home on the third line, comfortable alongside quietly productive veterans in Matt Stajan and Jones. As Mike pointed out, he's like Lance Bouma. He may very well be better.
The Flames acquired Bollig for grit and truculence. Both Bouma and Ferland offer that, but they can play more than six minutes a night, too. They can score and clearly be moved further up the lineup. They aren't just tough; they're functional.
Ferland was a fifth round pick with all the odds stacked against him, and we're just enjoying his official coming out party now. Size is important, yes. So is depth. He offers both.
High end talent
Top end talent is incredibly important as well, though, and this is where we point out the fact that the 18-year-old rookie in his second ever NHL game was on the ice with 90 seconds to go in a tied game. Not only that, but he started off the play that got the game winner, hitting Ronalds Kenins and allowing Backlund to pick up the puck that resulted in a 50-second cycle that resulted in a crushing game winner.
And that was just the kind of stuff he'd been doing all night. Bennett is going to bring the Flames incredible centre depth one day, but for now, there probably isn't a better person for him to learn with than alongside Backlund. Backlund isn't a big scorer, but he's an incredible defensive player. That means Bennett faces tougher competition, but Backlund covers it.
The two also share a competitive fire and tenacity that's hard to match. They both want the puck. They both have the talent to make sure they get it. Bennett and Backlund spent the entire night dancing around everyone, and were among the leaders in individual scoring chances for the Flames.
Bennett is 18 years old and already an absolute force to be reckoned with. He's someone who had to miss almost an entire season, and clearly wasn't too happy about that, having wanted to be in the NHL from the get go. He got sent down. He came back. He's helped his NHL team win more playoff games this season than his OHL team could manage. You can be sure he probably isn't ready to stop playing any time soon.
Is it because the opposition is unfamiliar with him that he was able to control as much as he did, or is it simply because of who Bennett is? He could have been taken first overall. He fell into the Flames' laps at fourth. He's going to be incredible, and this is just the start.
What a bright future it is
Both kids took bad penalties in their first playoff games. Their team bailed them out. They later expressed their thanks by picking up the puck and setting up goals one and two for the win.
There's a learning process, there always is. There's room to grow, there always is. But both Ferland and Bennett are doing it really, really fast, and despite their young ages, they're already key parts of a playoff team. They're two rookies offering physicality, smarts, and offensive skill.
The Flames are looking like they'll be incredible down the middle and on the left for years to come, and Bennett and Ferland strongly emphasize that. Watch out.