Sam Bennett had quite the debut with the Calgary Flames. After missing most of the 2014-2015 season due to shoulder surgery, the highest draft pick in Calgary Flames history was sent back to junior once he had recovered. He immediately tore up the OHL as a member of the Kingston Frontenacs with 11 goals and 13 assists in just 11 games, his team was then quickly swept out of the playoffs, leading Bennett to be recalled to the NHL in time for the final regular season game. Bennett assisted on a Micheal Ferland goal on the opening shift of his first NHL game. He was then a mainstay in the Flames' lineup over the course of their playoff run last season, assisting on the game winner in his playoff debut and finished the playoffs with 3 goals and 1 assist in 11 games. He also earned the endearing nickname of 18-year-old Sam Bennett, thanks to Jim Hughson. Contributing to the success of the team while making his professional hockey debut right at the start of the playoffs was a significant accomplishment, leaving everyone wondering what Bennett would be able achieve in his rookie season.
While all eyes were on Bennett in the playoffs, his rookie season actually seemed to fly quite under the radar, due to a multitude of reasons. The Flames season was generally a disaster, there was almost always something going wrong for them, whether it was abhorrent goaltending, a terrible start, horrific special teams, or other unfortunate developments, such as the Dennis Wideman-Don Henderson incident. Not everything was bad though; many players had a great season. Johnny Gaudreau was unbelievable. Sean Monahan continued to progress forward. TJ Brodie emerged as an elite defenceman. Mark Giordano stayed healthy for an entire season, putting up career highs, including 21 goals. Mikael Backlund, Joe Colborne and Dougie Hamilton had career seasons. Many players such as Hunter Shinkaruk, Freddie Hamilton, Garnet Hathaway and Jakub Nakladal made their Flames' debuts. To sum it up, there were so many different things going on with the Flames this season, positively and negatively, that it appears as though a solid rookie campaign by Sam Bennett may have been a bit overlooked. Here are some thoughts on Sam Bennett's rookie season, and why we should be as excited as ever for what his future holds.
- Sam Bennett finished the season with 18 goals and 18 assists for 36 points and 37 penalty minutes in 77 games. He averaged 15:09 of ice time per game, 7th among regular Flames forwards. He posted a 49.2% Corsi For, was 46.1% on face-offs and was credited with 110 hits (All stats per Hockey-Reference). He ended up finishing tied for 11 in rookie scoring, with San Jose's Joonas Donskoi (who is 24). While Bennett's statistics this season were not otherworldly, they were definitely respectable. I have chosen to look at Bennett's season alongside other rookies who were drafted in the first round of 2014. This group includes (Sam Reinhart (2nd) Nikolaj Ehlers (9th) Dylan Larkin (15th) and Robby Fabbri (21st). Looking at the other rookies from the 2014 draft, we can find that they are all fairly clustered together in terms of points per game with Dylan Larkin at 0.56, Sam Reinhart at 0.53, Nikolaj Ehlers at 0.53, Robby Fabbri at 0.51 and Bennett at 0.47. Sam Reinhart led the way in ice time at 16:50 a game, while Robby Fabbri actually only played 13:19 a game. Bennett was 4th of these 5 in ice time, just under a minute back of Nikolaj Ehlers who played 16:06.
- One thing that Sam Bennett did not have going for him that the other players had been quality of line mates. He hardly played with Gaudreau at all. He did have a couple of stretches throughout the year on the left-wing of terrific 2-way players in Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, often taking on tough matchups and driving possession and offense while with those players. However this was only for a small portion of the season, the rest of the season Bennett was mainly given the leftovers in terms of quality line mates. His most common line mates other than his time with Backlund and Frolik included Markus Granlund, the ghost of Jiri Hudler, Mason Raymond, Micheal Ferland and Josh Jooris. For a 19-year-old rookie, it is hard to be successful when your line mates combine for 26 goals in 243 games (In games as a Calgary Flame this season). In contrast, Nikolaj Ehlers most common linemates were Mark Schiefele, Mathieu Perrault, Alex Burmistrov, Chris Thorburn, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler. Sam Reinhart's were Ryan O'Reilly, Jamie McGinn, Evander Kane and Jack Eichel. Robby Fabbri played most with Dmitrij Jaskin, Jori Lehtera, Vladamir Tarasenko, Paul Stastny and Troy Brouwer. Dylan Larkin spent the majority of his time with Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader, but also Brad Richards, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Tatar. These are some very notable NHL players that these other rookies were playing with. It is safe to say that Bennett got the worst deal out of all of these rookies in this regard.
- An in-house comparison for Sam Bennett can be easily done against Sean Monahan. Both were aged 19 in their rookie seasons (Monahan an early birthday in his draft year, Bennett a late birthday in his draft). Monahan's rookie season he played 75 games, finishing with 22 goals and 12 assists. He played 15:59 a game compared to Bennett's 15:09. Statistically, they had a quite similar year (34 points in 75 games vs 36 points in 77 games). Monahan's possession stats were worse in his rookie year as well (44.5% Corsi) but the team overall had poorer possession stats in 2013-2014. One challenge Monahan had that Bennett did not was that Monahan spent his entire rookie year playing centre, while Bennett only lined up at centre for the last couple months of the season. People were extremely excited about Monahan's rookie season, rightfully so, and we should be feeling the same way about Bennett's. With all the young talent we have been able to watch the last couple of years, it is easy to lose perspective on a season like Sam Bennett's with everything else going on. The fact is, he had a very similar rookie season to Monahan, with continued development and some better line mates, we should hope to see a similar jump in year two to what Monahan did.
- Finally, through a less statistical perspective, I am not sure if I have ever seen somebody unluckier than Bennett through the course of the season. He endured goalless streaks of 8, 18, and 18 a second time. It was not as though he simply vanished during these droughts, he was generally noticeable, just terribly snakebitten. He was constantly on the wrong end of hitting posts, getting absolutely robbed by the opposing goaltenders, just missing perfect chances, or having teammates fumble perfect setups. Had even half of those gone the other way, he could have very well had a few more goals and assists this season, making his season look even better statistically.
Sam Bennett had a solid rookie season. He did not set the league on fire; he did not even finish top 10 in rookie scoring. However, there is plenty to like about Bennett, his offensive game flourished at times, like this beautiful goal against Pittsburgh or his 4-goal game against the Panthers. He also came as physical as advertised, some games he was a wrecking ball, such as that late December game against the Oilers. He definitely had his ups and downs, he is not yet a star player, but there was a lot to like about the rookie season he just had. With his own progression, some better line mates and some better luck, there may be a lot of exciting things to say about Bennett this time next year.