As the Flames fizzle out of the playoff picture it's clear they may have expected too much of rookie Sam Bennett.
Friday night’s 4-1 loss to Pacific Division rival Arizona was the Flames' 12th defeat in their last 15 games, and it moved them into a tie for second to last in the Western Conference in points percentage. It’s been a largely miserable season in Calgary, with many people to blame. You can easily point to the Flames' goaltending as the biggest cause for concern: their .894 save percentage is dead last in the NHL. But on Friday they were without 19-year old Sam Bennett for just the second time this season as he nurses an upper body injury. Bennett will also be out of the lineup for Monday’s match-up against the St. Louis Blues.
For a player who showed tremendous promise during his debut last spring, Bennett, 19, has become, although quietly, one of many disappointing elements in Calgary’s lost campaign.
When the Flames advanced, against the odds and underlying metrics, to the second round of the playoffs last spring, their run was memorable in a number of ways but it was Bennett’s performance, less than a year after he was taken fourth overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, that raised many eyebrows across the league.
Bennett came to a team that was absolutely rolling, having won five of its final seven games of the season. He was called up to play in Calgary's final regular season tilt and made his mark with an assist on the lone goal of the contest. In the playoffs he scored three goals and four total points, all of them at even strength, through 11 games. If there was any doubt about his ability to play at the NHL level, it was largely eradicated by that stretch, especially after the silliness that ensued when Bennett failed to do a single pull-up at the NHL draft combine in 2014.
Still, he might have kindled unrealistic expectations with that impressive but small sample of play.
This season Bennett has scored just 12 even-strength goals through 66 games, four of which came in a 6–0 rout of the Florida Panthers back in January. Like many young players, he’s prone to long droughts: His last goal came on February 11 against the San Jose Sharks. Given the experience he gained in his first taste of the NHL, in the playoffs no less, it’s been no surprise that even through his tough stretches he’s remained hard-nosed about how things have been going.
“In junior, you don’t normally go a couple of games without scoring,” Bennett told the Canadian Press in February. “It was definitely different, but it’s a different league and it’s a lot tougher. I knew that coming in.”
One not insignificant factor is that Bennett has had to adjust to left wing instead of center, the position he grew up playing and the one he was drafted to play. Coach Bob Hartley insisted in December that the Flames are "…treating him the same way we treated Sean Monahan in his first year and we have kind of our own recipe.”
Now, Monahan is having a fine season (second in team scoring) but the risks involved with keeping Bennett on the roster through thick and thin may be coming back to haunt them. The move to left wing seems to have stunted his development. Young scorers like Bennett often rely on consistency and routine to help speed their development at the NHL level and Hartley’s decision to move him to different positions hasn’t helped much. With just 14 games left on the Flames' schedule, he likely won’t be rushed back to action but heading into next season, the team would be wise to help him find his comfort zone again and keep him there.
Ranking 10th in rookie scoring might be all the Flames could’ve hoped for from Bennett this season, but after his dazzling playoff performance, expecting more wasn’t out of the question. The Flames will point to last season’s playoff run as a good step for their young core but they and their 19-year old forward have been served a hard dose of reality. Even in a league that is trending younger, Bennett’s up and down season proves that so much care is needed to ensure that young talent is ushered properly into the NHL and nurtured while it is there.