Sam Bennett's OHL season has lasted all of 15 games. The #4 overall pick this previous draft's postseason has been cut short after the Kingston Frontenacs were mercilessly swept by the North Bay Battallon in the first round of the OHL playoffs, losing tonight's game 3-1.
The offensive injection Bennett gave the Frontenacs during the final helped them cruise to a 10-1 finish in the regular season. During this stretch, Bennett provided 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) and was involved in 52% of the 46 Frontenac goals scored. The playoffs were a different story. Kingston only scored four goals during the entire series; Bennett provided assists on three of them.
The Frontenacs' unceremonious exit leaves Bennett with basically two options: play pro hockey in the NHL, or play pro hockey in the AHL.
Option #1: NHL Hockey
There isn't a Flames fan out there that wouldn't want to see what Sam Bennett on the team right now. They're in the final, desperate stretch of the playoff race, and need all the help they can get. Bennett raised hopes during his short stint with the team in the preseason, racking up two assists in three games along with 12 shots on goal; on a shoulder that needed surgery, no less.
With a lineup that is slightly damaged by injury and very questionable past the top six forwards, Bennett could become an immediate producer for the team. He would allow a lesser prospect, most likely Markus Granlund, to be sent down to the AHL to help the Baby Flames with their own playoff run. However, it's hard to see him immediately get good minutes. The Gaudreau-Hudler-Monahan line is unbreakable, and Mikael Backlund can't be moved from his spot. If he were to slot in, it would probably be on the third line.
The other issue with letting him play in the big league is his contract. He signed to a standard Entry Level Contract back in July, giving him three years with the team. The CBA allows for the contract to slide a year if he doesn't play 10 NHL regular or postseason games. If he plays 10 games or more, he burns a year of his contract, and becomes an RFA a year earlier.
After tonight, the Flames only have four regular season games left, as well as the playoffs if they make them. To take a rational view on the situation, the Flames probably aren't going to win the Stanley Cup, much less get very deep in the playoffs. The Western Conference is very top heavy, and even if the Flames survive the first round (we're even assuming that they manage to hold off Los Angeles), they probably aren't going to get past the second. Even if Sam is in the lineup, the issues with the team aren't really going to be immediately resolved by his presence.
The Flames don't really have a realistic shot of going deep in the playoffs, so why spend a year of Bennett's contract on a pipe dream? If he plays 10 games this year in the NHL, the CBA will view that as a full season. The Flames would be better off saving him for next year, when the team will have a more legitimate chance of getting to the playoffs and going deep. Burning a year of his contract already is a waste.
Option #2: AHL Hockey
This is a much more rational option for Bennett. The Calgary Flames have been poaching the Adirondack Flames' talent all year, and it could cost the farm team the playoffs. The baby Flames are currently five points out of the playoffs with five games left to go. Why not send in Bennett to finish the push?
Bennett can only benefit from playing in the AHL. He'll be playing with future teammates such as Emile Poirier, Patrick Sieloff, and Tyler Wotherspoon. It will be important for him to develop chemistry and get playing top line minutes somewhere. If it's not going to happen in the NHL, it should happen in the AHL.
The 10 game tryout doesn't apply to AHL games, so he can immediately join the team. The contract details are a little murky for players making the jump from the CHL to the AHL, but from what I understand, he will have to sign an ATO - amateur tryout - deal just like Poirier signed last year. It allows him to play in the AHL playoffs, and comes at no cost to his ELC.
Assigning Bennett to Adirondack is the best decision the Flames could make. It saves a year of his contract, gives him good playing time, and will be the best thing for the Flames looking forward. The team isn't equipped right now to make a deep run in the playoffs, and Bennett isn't going to change that. Keep him tucked away for a year, and then unleash him next year with a fully capable Flames team.
The Flames will probably announce something later tonight, so stay tuned!