He’ll be taking a bus to the game instead of a charter flight, his sweater will have a big ‘K’ on the front instead of a ‘C’ and he’ll be playing with teenagers instead of men, but when you go 145 days between games the way Sam Bennett has, it’s impossible not to be excited.
Bennett draws into the Kingston Frontenacs lineup tonight in Belleville for his Ontario League season debut tonight – and his home debut against the Sudbury Wolves Friday night - 4 ½ months after undergoing surgery on his left shoulder while in training camp with the Calgary Flames. And if the fourth overall pick is harboring any bitterness about not having a chance to play in the NHL this season, he’s doing a very good job of hiding it.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to play,” Bennett said. “I’ve never had a break that long, so I’m just excited to be able to play again. I’ve been following this team closely and I know they’ve been having a tough time scoring goals, so I really want to be able to come in and help.”
If Bennett were a little down about going back to junior, it would be tough to blame him. In the time he’s been out, he’s had to watch as three of his fellow rookies – Johnny Gaudreau, Josh Jooris and Markus Granlund – have made an impact with the Flames. He also had to watch as the Canadian World Junior team captured the gold medal in the World Junior Championship, a team that he would have been a part of if he had been healthy and the Flames had made him available. And by not being on the Flames roster to start the regular season, Bennett was denied the chance to be paid his NHL salary while he was rehabbing his injury. (He did, however, get $92,500 in signing bonus money, but he would have received that anyway). And instead of giving him a late-season audition or a short conditioning stint in the American League, the Flames opted to send him directly back to junior hockey.
In reality, that’s probably what’s best for his development given that he hasn’t played a game since Oct. 2. And if he’s looking for a challenge, he’s got a significant one in helping the injury-riddled Frontenacs stay in the playoff race. The Frontenacs are in seventh place in their division, five points to the good for a playoff spot, but have had a terrible time creating offense. They’ve scored a total of 149 goals this season, eclipsing only the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves and the Acadie-Bathurst Titan of the Quebec League in the 60-team CHL this season. Their leading scorer has just 37 points. Only the Titan’s leading scorer has fewer points than Kingston’s among CHL teams.
So even a rusty Sam Bennett will be a boon to the team. His 36 goals and 91 points last season was good for ninth in the OHL scoring race and led the Frontenacs by a large margin. But the best thing about Bennett is he not only makes plays, he competes with a real edge. In fact, he has often been favorably compared to Doug Gilmour, the Frontenacs GM. But Gilmour is quick to point out that Bennett is a better skater than he was.
Things were going well for Bennett in training camp before his injury diagnosis, which was the result of an ongoing issue that may have been exacerbated by a hit he took along the boards early in the pre-season. A groin injury and the shoulder issue limited him to just three pre-season games with Flames and he had two assists. In one contest, he led the team with seven shots and drew rave reviews from coach Bob Hartley.
Bennett now has 13 regular-season games and a playoff run in the OHL to salvage a season that has been a learning experience in more ways than one. He acknowledges it might take some time to find his groove, but doesn’t anticipate a lengthy process of getting his game back to where it was last season.
“I think I’ll be really comfortable,” Bennett said of his season debut. “I’ve been skating for about two months now and I’ve been in full practice for about a month. There might be a little bit of rust because games are always a lot different than practices, but I don’t think it will take long to get back to my normal self.”