Sam Bennett's junior season (and career in all likelihood) ended Thursday night with Kingston being swept in the first round of the OHL playoffs by North Bay.
He's going somewhere to keep playing hockey but the question is where. Does Calgary's fourth overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft come to Calgary and meet the team in Edmonton. Or, does he remain out East and join Adirondack in the AHL.
I've been 50-50 on what to do. To me, it's a fascinating question and there is compelling and logical arguments to both options. However, in mulling it over further after the Flames loss on Thursday night in St. Louis, I've made my decision.
If Calgary general manager Brad Treliving calls me this morning and asks for my advice, I will tell him to fly the kid West immediately because once I sat down and thought it through, there are a ton of reasons why -- 20 of them, in fact -- why I think that would be the smart thing to do.
1. He's Fresh
The Flames played 15 games in the month of March. Sam Bennett has played 15 games all season. In the last three weeks, Bennett has played six games, the Flames have played nine.
This is the time of year with the regular season nearly six months old where fatigue inevitably sets in, guys are playing through various aches and pains, the mental fatigue of the intense, emotion-draining playoff race takes a toll. Here'a an opportunity to insert a high-end player that is fresh and well-rested. It would be like putting a brand new set of tires on your 2005 Honda Civic.
2. It Would Be Awesome
Let's not forget, hockey organizations are also in the entertainment business. Can you think of better theatre for Saturday night's Hockey Night in Canada broadcast than to make it the backdrop for Bennett's NHL debut.
The odds of viewers in Ontario watching a Calgary-Edmonton hockey game? Probably not so good. But if Bennett was to play -- hailing from Holland Landing, Ontario, three years in Kingston, the OHL's top draft pick a year ago, that audience spikes. Then there's all the hype that would be going on in Alberta and obviously, in Calgary in particular.
It would make for a sensational storyline and even if his debut comes three days later when the Flames are back home against Arizona, it would still be the talk of the hockey world and hey, as a writer, I'm a sucker for a good story and this would certainly be one.
3. He Knows the Guys
This is not a scenario where you're bringing in some unfamiliar hotshot 18-year-old, who was last seen in September. By the Flames having him rehab from his shoulder operation in Calgary, Bennett has already spent over six months in the city, working out at the Saddledome and becoming familiar with the surroundings. In fact, he's only been gone for six weeks.
Heck, Bennett has spent more time with the Flames than some of the players in Calgary right now -- Granlund, Shore, Ferland, etc. While rehabbing, he was at the Dome all the time, attending meetings, working out in the gym with the players, hanging out with the guys away from the rink.
It was on Jan. 7 that he started skating again -- usually before practice, and on Feb. 2 he joined the main practice group. He eventually shed his no-contact jersey two weeks later before being assigned to Kingston on Feb. 21.
We are all familiar with always earned, never given, the Flames season slogan they've been preaching (and to their credit, also practicing) since training camp began in September. What more could Bennett do to 'earn' an opportunity than what he did when he returned to the OHL and rack up 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in 11 games.
4. No Chemistry to Upset Anyway
If you're worried that inserting Bennett onto the third line will disrupt chemistry, think again. Over the past two weeks (seven games), Flames coach Bob Hartley has started the game with 10 different combinations in his bottom six. Ten!
- Raymond-Granlund-Colborne (3 times)
- Bollig-Stajan-Raymond (2 times)
- Ferland-Stajan-Shore (2 times)
- Colborne-Backlund-Jooris (or Bouma-Granlund-Jones, if you prefer)
I see no issue with next game, trying a trio of Colborne-Bennett-Jooris or some other configuration with Bennett in the middle.
5. Job Opening at Centre
Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund, Matt Stajan -- all are locks at centre on this club right now. However, I view the third line centre job as very much available and guess what, Bennett is a centre.
Markus Granlund (the only player with Calgary, who is eligible to be assigned to the AHL) has played their the most but Josh Jooris has also been tried there, Joe Colborne has played some games there. The notion Bennett couldn't step in and contribute seems absurd given the lack-of-production the team is currently getting from that role.
As a bonus, maybe Bennett is an upgrade in the face-off circle as Calgary certainly needs help in that respect. The Flames have been owned at the dot all season but they've been especially bad the last three games. For those that advocate possession stats and their importance to a team winning, it's hard to possess the puck when you rarely start with the puck.
Flames Team Face-Off Percentage
April 2 vs STL - 22-41, 35%
March 30 vs DAL - 27-46, 37%
March 29 vs NSH - 21-34, 38%
6. Nothing to Lose
Why bring him to Calgary? The better question is why not?
The Flames already made the hard decision two months ago when they chose to 'do the right thing' and return Bennett to junior hockey once he was recovered from his surgery. His junior season is done now, now it's time to get him to Calgary and get him in a couple games and see how he fares.
All prospects come with a free trial period of nine games for this exact reason, stick him in the line-up at no risk and with no obligation. Calgary may as well take advantage of it.
Bennett was probably going to see a few games this season anyway, they're just coming at the end of the season instead of the start.
7. Second PP Unit Badly Needs Help
The last time the Flames got a power-play goal from their second unit was February 12. That was over seven weeks ago. It was David Jones with the goal against Los Angeles. Mikael Backlund and Mason Raymond were also out there. Since then, the last 14 goals on the man-advantage (over 23 games) have all been scored/created by the trio of Hudler, Gaudreau and Monahan.
Of late, the power play has cooled off going 1-for-14 in the last six games. A key goal on the man advantage in the next week could mean the difference of making the playoffs or not. Time to up the skill level on that second group and get them help right now in the form of a guy wearing jersey No. 63.
8. Spark the Team
The Flames are coming off a lethargic loss to St. Louis and while disappointing -- especially with the Blues missing their two top scorers in Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Steen, it's not the loss that will cost them a playoff spot. St. Louis is one of the Stanley Cup favourites so expectations of coming away with points in that game should have been modest.
That said, looking at the first period in particular, is this a team that needs a jolt right now, the infusion of a sparkplug like Bennett? Paul Byron often brings some fire when he plays with his lightning-quick speed but he is banged up right now and not available.
The real tricky games are coming up with the lowly Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes on the docket next. Calgary absolutely cannot afford to take these games lightly as complacency would be death. Both teams, especially Edmonton, would love to play the role of spoilers.
Infuse Bennett into the line-up and that's going to instantly rejuvenate that dressing room and would be a great way to guard against a let-down at a time in the season where a stumble would kill their post-season aspirations.
9. Another Chapter in a Great Story
This season has been one long magical ride for fans in many regards, from the 10 third period comebacks, to Gaudreau's spectacular rookie season, to the breakout of Lance Bouma, the continuous clutch goals from Sean Monahan, to the unexpected heroes -- David Schlemko in that shootout in Boston and Raphael Diaz the other night in Dallas, to name just a couple.
For a team that should be near the bottom of the standings based on analytics, Calgary has been somehow defying the odds continually. Considering the Flames track record this season of most things turning out rosy, hard to see Bennett not working either. Destined to make the playoffs is a pretty strong statement but it's certainly a destiny-like feeling you get when watching this team continually fall behind and yet pull out victories.
10. Reward the Fans
Let's not forget the most important group -- you guys, the fans. You are the ones buying tickets, sinking money into the concession, paying for parking, buying the jerseys.
Calgary is starved for playoff hockey. It's been five years without. What an opportunity the management team has to thank the Flames for their support over the years and especially this season by unwrapping Bennett and unveiling him for the final two home games of the season.
Forget about the customary 'jerseys off their back' promotion for the final home game, playing a kid with the name 'Bennett' on his back would be the best fan-appreciation gift the team could provide in that final week.
11. Calgary is in a playoff spot, Adirondack is not.
If Bennett can help the team right now, how do you not bring him to Calgary, which is embroiled in a suffocatingly-close playoff race. Flames -- 91 points in 78 games, Kings and Jets at 90 points in 77 games. Only two teams get in.
The priority of the Flames organization is not getting Adirondack into the playoffs, it's getting Calgary in and if there's the slightest chance that Bennett can help them realize that goal, that's where Bennett needs to be playing.
Besides, Adirondack is looking like a long-shot to make the post-season anyway.
Here's a look at how the AHL's Western Conference looks. Like the NHL, only the top eight teams get in. The AHL plays a 76-game regular season.
8. Milwaukee, 70 gm, 33-25-12, 78 pts
9. Hamilton, 69 gm, 32-26-11, 75 pts
10. Toronto, 67 gm, 32-26-9, 73 pts
11. Lake Erie, 68 gm, 31-26-11, 73 pts
12. Adirondack, 68 gm, 32-28-8, 72 pts
Adirondack has to close a six-point gap on Milwaukee and while they hold two games in hand, they also need to pass three other teams and that's very difficult at this time of year. It's not looking good for the baby Flames (who also lost Tyler Wotherspoon on Friday, recalled by Calgary). Their playoff hopes really took a hit when they lost Joni Ortio (high ankle sprain) back on Feb. 20.
12. He's Good
Let's not forget, Bennett was potentially the first overall pick in last year's NHL Draft before Calgary had the good fortune to get him at No. 4.
Bennett did rank as the No. 1 North American skater according to NHL Central Scouting. Players of that ilk step in and play in the NHL and make an immediate impact all the time and that's often in October. Bennett is another six months older now and presumably that much stronger from all his time spent in the gym rehabbing.
Past first overall picks and how they fared in stepping in and playing in the NHL the first year after they were drafted:
2013-14 - Nathan MacKinnon COL, 82 gm, 24-39-63
2012-13 - Nail Yakupov EDM, 48 gm, 17-14-31
2011-12 - Ryan Nugent Hopkins EDM, 62 gm, 18-34-52
2010-11 - Taylor Hall EDM, 65 gm, 22-20-42
2009-10 - John Tavares NYI, 82 gm, 24-30-54
13. Valuable Learning Experience
The type of experience that young guys like Monahan, Gaudreau, TJ Brodie and Bouma are accumulating right now is going to be invaluable in the future. Knowing how to handle the pressure of playing in intense, meaningful, life-or-death games is something you only get good at by doing it. It's something you need to experience and the sooner guys can get a taste of that, learn what it's like and figure out how to manage it, the better they'll be at handling it the next time they're in that position -- and the Flames hope that will be next year at this time.
Look at it like a pre-requisite for playoff success. May as well take that course this year and get it out of the way.
So I say get Bennett here now, expose him to the pressures of the playoff race, the intensity of the moment, and that will be an experience he will draw from next season and beyond.
14. Reward Him
It's been a tough year for Bennett. Playing through the pain of a shoulder injury as he desperately tried to make the team in training camp. The major surgery, the long, long grind of the intensive rehab process. Throughout it all, he never made a dime of pro hockey salary.
As a player with no pro experience prior to this season, starting the year on the IR means he gets compensated based on last season and as someone, who was in major junior, that means he gets nothing.
The Flames, by having him rehab in Calgary, would have handled his living expenses and that sort of thing but until he gets put on the Flames active roster, his entry level NHL salary of $925,000 has not been tapped into.
Now don't get me wrong, Bennett will make loads of money in his career, I don't think he's experiencing financial hardship right now, but kicking in his NHL salary for the last part of this season would be a nice bone to throw him and a way of thanking him for his efforts all year in getting back to healthy. His entry-level salary works out to $5,000 for every day spent on an NHL roster so activating him for the final nine days of the regular season would be worth $45,000.
On behalf of the Flames organization, thank you Sam, now go treat yourself to something nice.
15. Several Forwards are Ice Cold
I already mentioned the failings on the power play of any forward not named Monahan, Hudler or Gaudreau. There are also a bunch of forwards caught in long droughts overall and that gives one even more reason to try Bennett because it's not like this group has been getting it done offensively.
Stajan - 0 goals in his last 11
Raymond - 0 goals in his last 13, 1 in his last 20
Bollig - 0 goals in his last 17, 1 in his last 60
Backlund - 1 goal in his last 10
Shore - 1 goal in his last 10
Jooris - 1 goal in his last 11
Granlund - 1 goal in his last 17
Ferland - 1 goal in his last 22
Colborne - 1 goal in his last 30
Byron - 1 goal in his last 36
16. He Improves the Flames Line-up
If Bennett was in the St. Louis organization or with Los Angeles, perhaps there's no room for him right now. Calgary, on the other hand, is not a deep team. While some would argue that Bennett would be over-matched in the NHL right now, would it be any worse than some of the players already playing for the Flames right now and looking over matched?
Heck, the whole team looks over-matched at times and it's been the theme of the season and is why the advanced stats folks are furious the Flames are in a playoff spot right now. Sitting in third spot in the Pacific Division, Calgary needs to find a way to seal the deal and if an injection of Bennett provides that little extra zip, perhaps a key goal or two, then make it happen.
I've seen Bennett play live a few times now and this guy's skill set is special and he would be an upgrade to the bottom six forwards right now, no question about it.
17. Breaking Him in via the AHL Anyway
If the concern is around dropping Bennett into the throes of the high-speed, high-stakes NHL playoff race and the desire is to have him first get in a few games in the AHL, it could be argued that playing him against Edmonton and/or Arizona is not far off the caliber of opponent he would face if he was in the Adirondack line-up Saturday night and playing the Western Conference-leading San Antonio Rampage.
Now I'm obviously speaking tongue-in-cheek with that statement but there's no denying that near-cellar dwelling Oilers and Coyotes as the next two opponents provides a great opportunity for Bennett to jump in and get his feet wet before taking on the big boys of Los Angeles and Winnipeg.
18. Reward the Top Line
Of all the gaudy numbers Hudler racked up in March, the stat that leaped off the page when he was named NHL's second star of the month was he either scored or assisted on 43.4% of Calgary's 53 goals in March. It was that same top line that again produced the only goal on Thursday night.
For the past month, the success of the Flames every game has pretty much hinged on whether that top line scores or not. All three are having enormous years but my goodness, how about giving that trio some offensive support by adding to the line-ups a guy who lit up the OHL in his return. Adding Bennett would be a nice way to acknowledge that top line and all they've done and demonstrate that you're trying to get them help.
When the NHL trade deadline passed, Treliving lamented that he wasn't able to bring in help as a way of thanking the team for the tremendous year they've had. In that circumstance, bringing in help was too expensive. In this case, it's absolutely free. You can add in Bennett at no cost in terms of prospects or draft picks and it's the boost the top line as well as the entire team deserves at this stage.
19. If You Need to Burn it, Burn it
Bennett can play up to nine NHL games (regular season or playoff games) without burning the first year of his entry-level contract, which teams like to avoid if possible as it can result in one's contract escalating quicker than it might otherwise.
("Burning" a year means at 10 games or more, it's considered by the CBA as a full season and thus would result in his three-year entry level contract beginning this year instead of next, and subsequently expiring one year sooner.)
Considering there are only four games left, perhaps you bring Bennett in and give him a few practices with the team first before dressing him against Arizona on Tuesday. Now there's only three regular season games left.
Should you make the playoffs, you could keep playing him and you're only going to get into that 'burn the contract or not' dilemma come game seven of the opening round of the playoffs -- or Calgary could be in the second round already. If you're facing either one of those situations, I think the organization would gladly burn that first year for all the financial good they will have already generated unexpectedly from a playoff run and revenues from at least three home games.
The implications of how this could affect the Flames salary cap in four or five years is too far out to deter the team from trying to win and get into the second round of the playoffs right now.
20. Fiercely Competitive
The one thing that jumps out at you when you watch him live and when you speak to him in person, Bennett is a guy that is absolutely driven. He has an intensity in his eyes that he knows what he wants and it's going to be damn hard to stop him.
He ignored shoulder pain to try and make the Flames out of training camp. He was busting it at practices with the team (and looking great) to try and avoid being returned to Kingston in February. He wants to play in the NHL right now and badly and I have no doubt that if he gets the chance to get in the line-up, he will have an immediate impact and it's going to be awfully difficult to get him back out of the line-up again -- think Monahan at the start of last season.
Now that I've shared what I think the Flames should do, it's time to sit back and see if Calgary's management team agrees. We should know on Friday.
Recent Related Flames Reading
- Eight From 80 Feet: Hudler No. 1 in the NHL, Bouma Better Than Crosby and More - A bunch of interesting topics this week as I dig into Jiri Hudler's perch atop the NHL's even-scoring leaders. I also look at Bouma's success at even-strength -- more goals that Crosby. Other topics include Flames tie-breaker updates and a list of highest point totals to ever miss the playoffs.
- Flames Improbable Playoff Chase Comes Down to the Wire - So close. So damn close. So tantalizingly, excruciatingly, mouth-wateringly close. With two weeks to go in the season, the Flames are right there in the playoff race, within striking distance of a playoff spot. I try to put this crazy, improbable season and all they've accomplished into some perspective.
- 15 Signs You're a Flames Fan Caught up in the Playoff Race - This playful piece will hit close to home for Calgary fans, who have been riding the emotional roller coaster all season. It's a light-hearted look at 15 obvious signs that you have Flames playoff chase fever.
- Johnny Gaudreau: Making a Case for the Best Flames Rookie Season Ever - In terms of points, Johnny Gaudreau is having the best season by a Calgary rookie in 25 years. But dig deeper and a case could be made that Gaudreau is having as good of a rookie season, and maybe even better than Joe Nieuwendyk when the Flames great scored 51 goals in 1987-88.
- Eight from 80 Feet: Sean Monahan Edition - How impressive has Sean Monahan's sophomore season been? I put his year into a number of different contexts -- vs 2013 draft class, top 10 picks lately with least goal variance in jump from major junior to the NHL, best sophomore season, comparison to Joe Nieuwendyk. Spoiler Alert - It's darn impressive.