A divorce between Sam Bennett and the Calgary Flames has felt more inevitable with each passing year.
He's produced in fits and starts in parts of seven seasons since they chose him fourth overall in the 2014 draft, but 13 players in the draft class have outscored him. The production hasn’t matched the pedigree – or the opportunity hasn’t matched the pedigree, as he’s averaged 14:11 of ice time per game since becoming a full-time NHLer in 2015-16. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, as we saw with Jack Roslovic before the Winnipeg Jets traded him in January. And it appears to be building to a Bennett departure, regardless of whether he has officially requested one.
First came the report from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman Saturday night that Bennett’s agent, Darren Ferris, expressed that his client “would like a change of scenery.” On Monday, however, Sportsnet’s Eric Francis clarified that Flames management was shocked by the report. Translation: there may be interest from Bennett’s camp in a change of scenery, but Bennett hasn't formally requested a trade. This isn’t a Roslovic situation in which the player will refuse to play for his team until he’s dealt. Bennett remained in Calgary's lineup during Saturday's win over the Montreal Canadiens.
That said, with the seed of a trade now planted, the possibility of one happening increases, as it’s far more likely GM Brad Treliving starts receiving calls on Bennett.
There’s a window to move Bennett because he still has conceivable trade value. It doesn’t appear he’ll live up to the draft-year hype that compared him to Doug Gilmour but, at 24, Bennett has settled in as a fairly useful top-nine forward at the NHL level. He can be counted on for double-digit goals every year, averaging 13.9 per 82 games in his career. He brings feisty physicality to the forecheck. In the three seasons preceding this one, 393 forwards played 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5, and Bennett sits 76th in hits per 60, placing in the 81st percentile. He’s a respectable shot generator, sitting 114th in shots per 60, in the 71st percentile. Bennett sits 40th in individual scoring chances per 60, placing in the 90th percentile. He hasn’t been deployed as a pure checker as a third liner, having started more than 60 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone since 2017-18, but he’s not steamrolling through constant cupcake matchups, either. His most common 5-on-5 opponents in the past few seasons include Leon Draisaitl, Brent Burns and Patrick Kane.
Bennett's decent work in a fairly limited role suggests he could do more on a team that gives him a bigger opportunity. He’s not a first-line player, but it would be interesting to see what he’d do with a longer look in a second-line role. The upside should attract plenty of buyers. He would remain under his new team’s control as an RFA this coming off-season.
It's also understandable why the Flames might be out of patience. Bennett has a reputation as a strong playoff performer, with 11 goals in 30 career games, but some of that can be attributed to a luckier shooting percentage of 15.5 in the post-season compared to 10.1 percent for his career, and the playoff scoring never seems to follow Bennett into the ensuing regular seasons. After busting out for five goals and eight points in 10 games during the 2019-20 bubble tournament, Bennett sits at no goals and one point through seven games in 2020-21. The light isn’t switching on for him, and it’s tough to imagine him cracking the top six in Calgary on the left side as long as the team employs Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk.
Regardless of whether the trade request is official, there’s some logic to the idea of exploring a Bennett trade. Plenty of teams could use forward depth mixed with upside. One report has already indicated the Toronto Maple Leafs and Anaheim Ducks would make sense.
But is now the right time to trade Bennett? Doing so during the season has some pitfalls. For one, trading is logistically difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially if it’s done between two teams on different sides of the Canada-U.S. border. Pierre-Luc Dubois, still quarantined, hasn't debuted with the Winnipeg Jets more than a week after being traded to them, while Patrik Laine spent a week in work-visa hell before reporting to the Columbus Blue Jackets. If the Flames want something closer to an instant return for Bennett, they’d likely have to look within their own all-Canadian division, where a trade seems more far-fetched this season than most with every game between every team directly impacting the playoff picture.
There’s also the expansion draft to consider. For an exercise a couple months back, I mocked up the entire Kraken expansion draft, which included playing out every team’s protection strategy. Once some justifiably angry Flames fans set me straight on my poor original decision to expose Andrew Mangiapane, I projected the team to protect the following forwards in a 7-3-1 scheme, with Milan Lucic waiving his no-movement clause in a side deal:
Bennett, then, was the projected Kraken claim, a great pick for a new franchise seeking to unlock upside like the Vegas Golden Knights did with William Karlsson. You could make the case Calgary is better off trading Bennett now if it’s a given that he’ll get claimed – but what piece are you getting back for him? If it’s a current NHL-ready player, does it risk nudging any of the aforementioned seven forwards out of the protection scheme? If it’s a defenseman, does it risk forcing Treliving to protect four blueliners and four forwards in an 8-1 scheme?
Trading Bennett now could thus be complicated. You don’t want to lose him for nothing in the expansion draft, but you do have to lose someone for nothing no matter what. You could do worse than losing an underachiever who doesn’t want to play for your team anyway. So there's reason to hesitate before rushing to trade Bennett.