The Calgary Flames entered the playoffs with eight games to use on fourth overall pick Sam Bennett. Had they been eliminated in the first round, there would be no debate: Bennett’s three-year entry level contract would remain intact for the start of the 2015-16 season.
The Flames were not eliminated in the first round, because the Vancouver Canucks are not a great team, and the Flames were able to handle the matchup in an entertaining series.
This guaranteed at least another four games, with Bennett having already played seven. At the start of the playoffs, Brad Treliving announced that Bennett would be available for Bob Hartley to use as Hartley saw fit, with no limit on games played.
Ten games takes a year off of Bennett’s ELC, and tonight, Sam Bennett will be playing his 10th NHL game. At the start of the 2015-16 season, Bennett will only have two years left on his current contract.
Is this the right move?
Pros to playing Sam Bennett
- The Flames are a better team with Bennett in the lineup than without.
- Therefore, if the Flames want to have a chance of beating the Anaheim Ducks – and it should go without saying that of course they do – they need Bennett in the lineup.
- The Flames are in a very good cap situation, both for now and the foreseeable future. They can afford to pay Bennett more.
- Bennett will not be able to play enough games to bring him to UFA status a year early. He would need to play 40 for that; that's not going to happen until next season, when he would, in all likelihood, be an NHL regular.
- However faint a chance the Flames have at beating the Ducks, it wouldn’t do well to take one of their productive players out of the lineup under the guise of preserving his contract status. It doesn’t send a good message to the team, nor to Bennett himself. "We care more about being frugal than winning" is not a good look for a professional sports team, whether rebuilding, contending, or somewhere in between.
Cons to playing Sam Bennett
- The Flames are in unrealistically tough to beat the Ducks. The Ducks have pretty clearly established themselves as the better team, and even if the Flames manage to take all their home games, they still need to win in Anaheim.
- Bennett will need to be re-signed faster, and he’ll cost more sooner.
- Part of having a good, responsible management group is recognizing reality and maximizing your assets. Continuing to play Bennett does neither.
Sports are more than just numbers
Professional sports are an incredibly human business. You have to take a group of 20-30 – more or less, depending on the game – alpha personalities and have them work together to the best of their abilities, all with one goal in mind: win.
Winning isn’t an option for everyone in every season, obviously; teams like the Buffalo Sabres recognize the situation they’re in and management adjusts accordingly, while the players simply try to do their best in the ensuing circumstances.
It’s different when you make the playoffs, though. There’s no real benefit to losing in those. (Okay, there is one: if the Flames lose in the second round they’ll pick 15th overall rather than 27th, 29th, or 30th, but nobody in the lineup cares about that.) The playoffs are the epitome of playing to win.
Take a group of incredible athletes who have worked towards one goal for most of their lives and tell them, "Hey, sorry guys, not this year," when they’re in the midst of being farther than many of them have ever gotten before, and that’s not going to go over well at all.
Pissing off the entire Flames team in an effort to try to save some money in what is already a very manageable situation does not accomplish anything, and does not seem particularly worth it.
Your players are human
And then there’s Sam Bennett himself.
The highest pick in Flames franchise history, it took Bennett just over half a minute to get his first NHL point. In single digit games, he's already established himself as a talented, if raw, force, and the future looks very, very good with him in it.
Imagine how well it would go to take one of the brightest spots on your team, sit him down, and say, "It's not you, it's your contractual situation." Sure, on some level, he'd probably understand - the NHL is a business, after all - but chances are, he wouldn't exactly feel warm and fuzzy about it.
This is an 18-year-old kid who spent most of the season on the shelf, and when he was finally ready to come back, was sent back down to the OHL. Bennett was not happy with the decision, but that one was justifiable. Having him play his first NHL games at a time when the big league was in full swing while he himself hadn't played in months could have been damaging.
Being cautious in regards to a player's health is not the same thing as sitting him due to his contractual situation. And while it's unlikely anything big would come of it, why would you want to piss off the kid who might just end up leading the entire team one day?
Structurally, it does not make sense to burn a year of Bennett's contract for a series that may not last much longer.
Taking everything else into account, it does.