In a year where Calgary is enjoying unexpected success as a team fuelled by big offensive seasons from Johnny Gaudreau, 21, and Sean Monahan, 20, it's Bennett -- only 18, who is quite possibly the most talented of that big three that should be the foundation of the Flames forward group for the next decade.
Selected fourth overall last June, Bennett is the highest draft pick in team history and he could have gone higher. Many draft experts including NHL Central Scouting had Bennett listed at No. 1.
Now the question on everyone's mind is what's next?
Inquiring minds what to know what is the plan for the team's top prospect, who is clearly entering the final stages of his recovery from October shoulder surgery.
Here's a summary of what the Flames can do along with some thinking out loud around what they may do.
Understanding All the Options
As you probably know already, Bennett is entitled to play up to nine NHL games (regular season or playoff) this season without his three-year entry-level contract kicking in.
Having the start of a player's first contract slide to the next season is a big deal for teams as it affects how quickly a player of Bennett's calibre starts getting into the much larger paydays that will inevitably be waiting for him starting as soon as four years from now.
Even though the Flames are barely above the NHL's salary cap floor, it's an important consideration right now as Calgary could very well be bumping up against the cap ceiling again in a few years when Bennett's salary begins to escalate. So, shrewdly managing Bennett's situation now is smart business.
Q1. Does he go on a AHL Conditioning Loan?
We've all seen (and honked at and/or 'saluted') those terrible drivers, who try to join a major freeway like Deerfoot Trail from a complete stop rather than using the merge lane. It's dumb, it's dangerous and that's exactly what the Flames would be doing if come time -- be it late February or March, they try to insert Bennett straight into a NHL game when he's declared ready.
If the plan is for Bennett to play NHL games, he needs to go to the AHL first to get in some games there and get up to speed. The NHL has been underway for five months and this season has been described by some as the fastest hockey we've ever seen. Bennett's last game was a medium-paced exhibition game against Winnipeg back on Oct. 2. It would be a bad idea to get in the car, floor it, and try to instantly drive 70 mph. A much better idea is ramp up to that speed in the minors.
On the other hand, if they decide the most appropriate level for Bennett is the OHL, he could be assigned by the Flames to Kingston as soon as he's declared ready and that's where his next game would take place.
There are a few things to know about an AHL conditioning loan:
The player has to consent to it. OK, no problem here. Whatever is deemed by the club as a requirement for him to have a chance at playing in the NHL this season, you know Bennett will be all over it.
He must be part of the NHL club's active roster in order to be sent on a conditioning loan. This complicates it a little as Calgary likes to have a full 23-man roster at its immediate disposal so they have options should someone get dinged up on the day of a game or fall ill, which we've seen a lot lately -- Backlund missing Monday's game for that reason and Hudler absent on Saturday.
That said, the Flames were essentially operating with a 22-man roster in the first half while Brian McGrattan was with the club so could they get by with just 22 again for a week or two? Sure.
In order to make room for Bennett, of course, you need to create a roster spot for him, but that's easily accomplished. If it was today, for example, Calgary could simply return Markus Granlund to Adirondack.
One caveat to consider is Bennett isn't exactly nearby if the club needed someone all-of-a-sudden. It's the complicated travel logistics of getting a player quickly across the country in an emergency that is one of the main reasons behind the decision to move Calgary's AHL affiliate next season to Stockton, California.
A conditioning loan can last up until 14 continuous days. Depending on when he goes down and for how long, he could play as few as zero games or as many as five or six. It all depends at what point Adirondack is at in its schedule.
Flames general manager Brad Treliving and coach Bob Hartley have both been non-committal when it comes to specifics about how far away Bennett is from being ready to play. So, as a disclaimer, the dates I'm about to toss out there are speculative only. Don't write them down!
Let's assume he continues to practice with Calgary for the next couple weeks, eventually shedding his no-contact jersey. I could envision a scenario that sees him activated and assigned to Adirondack as soon as Feb. 19. That would allow him to get into back-to-back games at Oklahoma City on Feb. 20 and 21 and then potentially another set of back-to-back games on Feb. 27 (at Utica) and 28 (versus Toronto).
In that scenario, the Flames active roster would be reduced to 22 players for four games.
- Feb. 20 - vs Anaheim
- Feb. 24 - at NY Rangers
- Feb. 25 - at New Jersey
- Feb. 27 - at NY Islanders
As a bonus, Calgary would be on the East Coast so much closer to Glens Falls should an emergency come up with its reduced roster.
Bennett could then re-join the Flames in time for their game in Philadelphia on March 3, which is the day after the NHL trade deadline.
Q2. How Many (if any) NHL Games Does he Play Right Now?
As already mentioned, Bennett is allowed nine NHL games total (including playoffs). However, something to keep in mind is do you wish to keep some of those nine games for the end of the season and maybe the playoffs as he can re-join the Flames after Kingston's season is complete.
Kingston is currently on pace to make the OHL playoffs. The Frontenacs are seventh in the 10-team Eastern Conference in which eight teams will qualify for the post-season. As of today, Kingston is four points up on ninth place Peterborough with 22 games remaining.
The OHL regular season ends on Mar. 22 so factor in 5-7 games in a best-of-seven playoff series and Bennett's junior season could conclude sometime in the first week of April. At that time, he could re-join Calgary.
Q3. Where Does Bennett Report When His OHL Season Ends?
If Bennett makes his way back to Kingston, he must remain there until his junior season ends -- be it the end of the regular season or when they are eliminated from the playoffs.
When that happens, where does he go?
Option A: Calgary
As speculated, Bennett could return to Calgary after the OHL season. However, the nine game limit still applies in terms of his ELC so that could be a consideration in how much he plays.
A first round OHL playoff exit would mean he could probably be back in Calgary in time for the Flames final three regular season games:
- April 7 - vs Anaheim
- April 9 - vs LA
- April 11 - at Winnipeg
Whether it's Calgary he comes back to may hinge on what the NHL roster needs are at that time and whether or not the Flames are still in the playoff chase or not. There are many variables that could influence the club's decision and it's impossible to know right now what they might decide to do two months from now.
Option B: Adirondack
Based on his 1996 year of birth, Bennett cannot be assigned to the AHL as a regular course of action either this season or in 2015-16. This is all part of an agreement between the NHL and the Canadian Hockey League. So, it's either luxurious chartered airplanes or OHL bus rides for Bennett this year and next.
But those rules go out the window when the junior team's season ends.
If Calgary doesn't make sense for Bennett, Adirondack would make a ton of sense. Adirondack's final seven regular season games fall during a busy 13-day stretch from April 7 to 19. Likely playoff bound, Glens Falls could be the ideal location for Bennett to be dropped into and carry on what will be an abbreviated 2014-15 hockey season.
Winnipeg prospect Josh Morrissey joined the Jets AHL affiliate in St. John's last year after his season for Prince Albert (WHL) finished and he ended up getting in eight regular season games and another 20 playoff games as the IceCaps went all the way to the Calder Cup final.
Note that for Bennett, it's only NHL games that impact the status of his ELC. The quantity of AHL games a player appears in is not a factor.
Option C: Both of the Above
Rather than one or the other, Bennett could also join Calgary, play in the final three regular season games as an example, and then go down to the AHL after that if the NHL Flames miss the playoffs.
Or, he could do the opposite and report to the AHL straight from Kingston and then join Calgary at a later point should they make the playoffs and/or require him.
So now you know what the Flames can do. Next, we wait to see what they will do.
For what it's worth, I get the sense Bennett is viewed rightfully as an elite talent, who will go the AHL to get some conditioning games in first, then will play a handful of games with the Flames before eventually being returned to Kingston. Then I think he gets in some more games at the end of the year and potentially some playoff games too -- should Calgary reach the post-season.
Should that happen, when he does appear in his first NHL game, Bennett will become the youngest player to play a NHL game this season. Currently that title is held by Boston Bruins left winger David Pastrnak. However, Bennett -- born on June 20, is 26 days younger than Pastrnak.
As the youngest of nearly 900 players to appear in the NHL this season, fans would certainly need to keep their expectations in check. That said, the allure of seeing Bennett play centre between Johnny Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler in a real NHL game is a pretty exciting thought, I'm sure, for all the residents of Flames Nation.
Regardless of how it all unfolds, the fact is the Flames have another exciting prospect to get genuinely excited about. I wrote a couple months back that the trio of Bennett, Gaudreau and Monahan gives Calgary one of its best young forward threesomes we've seen in a couple decades and it's that, combined with the dynamic top defence pairing of Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie, that gives fans legitimate hope that despite starting its rebuild a few years late, it could be completed a lot sooner than originally expected.
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