Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Time for Sam Bennett is Right Now

What's better than having an ace up your sleeve? Having an ace in your hand.

There is a time to be patient with young players and there's a time to be loyal with veteran players. The middle of April is not either of those times. The NHL playoffs are upon us and it is time for Calgary Flames coach Bob Hartley to ice the line-up that gives him the best chance of beating the Vancouver Canucks four times in the next seven games.

That line-up should include Sam Bennett, who has been practicing for 10 days since re-joining the team after his OHL season concluded. Play him at centre, play him on the wing, heck -- play him as a 13th forward instead of Corey Potter and his four shifts. Find him a spot somewhere in the line-up because he makes the Flames better.

The chemistry question comes up a lot but overlooked is the fact Bennett has been around the team much of the year as he rehabbed from his shoulder operation. Other than a short return home at Christmas and his six week cameo appearance with Kingston, he's spent the rest of the season in Calgary.

While NHL experience is lacking, he's had a couple of cups of coffee. He got in one NHL regular season game and picked up an assist 33 seconds into his first shift. Also under his belt are another three games if you include the pre-season when he had two assists and 12 shots -- his average of four shots-per-game leading the team.

Do you remember the immediate impact Sean Monahan had when he stepped into the line-up last year? Let me refresh your memory. Six goals in his first eight games. Bennett was selected two picks higher.

Highest Draft Pedigree

Bennett is the highest draft pick in Calgary Flames history. Of all the resumes stacked on Hartley's desk, of which he must select 20 players to insert into the line-up Wednesday night at Rogers Arena, that essentially means Bennett had the best grades in school.

Nobody on this team has his type of credentials. Closest would be Monahan, who was selected sixth overall one year earlier. With Monahan, there was more talk of him dropping to seventh than moving up to fifth. Bennett, on the other hand, went No. 4 and NHL Central Scouting had him pegged at No. 1. The only other first round picks on the roster are Joe Colborne -- 16th overall in 2008, who has already been traded twice, and Mikael Backlund, 24th overall in 2007.

While there's no denying that Bennett lacks work experience, you know he'll make up for that in enthusiasm and his natural 'smarts' are sure to shine through.

Not Everybody Loves Raymond

Considering the uneven play the Flames have gotten all season from Mason Raymond -- no goals in his last 17 games, you wonder if that might be the spot that Bennett is inserted into come game one.

While you don't know exactly what Bennett would bring to the line-up, it's also hard to argue with any certainty that Calgary is a better team with Raymond on the wing instead. Raymond has been hot twice. He had five goals in six games early in the year and then five goals in five games in early February. Exclude those two scoring binges and the rest of the season, he's had two goals in 46 games.

My original thinking when Bennett wasn't used late in the season against Edmonton and then sat out again against Arizona was that the club would wait in the playoffs to play him, just like they also passed over him in the biggest game of the season against the Kings.

However, now I'm not so sure. Based on speculation Raymond was looking like the extra based on line rushes at practice on Monday -- and with Bennett taking a regular turn, it looks now like Hartley isn't so sure either.

Instead of waiting until you're down in the series to bring in a sparkplug, who quite possibly will be the team's best player a few years down the road, why not do the opposite and start with him in the line-up and then take him out if he's over his head. Bennett is the dictionary definition of a wild card because it's impossible to gauge how he would perform in the intensity of the playoffs based solely on his performance in three exhibition games and what was not much than a glorified exhibition game last Saturday at the MTS Centre.

However, based on his pedigree, what you see whenever he has been on the ice -- be it at practice, in the preseason, last Saturday in Winnipeg, or even back in September in Penticton at the rookie tournament, this isn't rolling the dice and crossing your fingers. There is a very good chance that barring injury, once Bennett gets in the line-up, he will never come out again. Ever.

Missing Lance Bouma

If there's one element on this team that's lacking, it's the sandpaper quality that you can never have enough of come playoff time when you're locked into a long war with an arch rival. Monahan is not that, nor is Johnny Gaudreau, nor is Raymond. While two of those guys have been filling the net as part of the best line in the NHL, the other has not.

Bennett will give you that. Probably not in the same quantity as you'll get from him a few years down the road when he's bigger, more comfortable in the league, and has pissed off players on opposing teams, but he packs that element in his game.

In his draft year, Bennett has 118 penalty minutes in 57 games with Kingston. That's more than twice as many as anyone on the Flames roster this season other than Brandon Bollig, who led the team with 88 PIMs.

In 2004, the Flames had that quality in several forwards - Chris Clark, Ville Nieminen, Chris Simon, Stephane Yelle, Jarome Iginla of course, and even Marty Gelinas had a little spice to his game.

That quality, the ability to get under the skin of the opponent, to be a prick, to get the other team off their game, is sorely missing from this club right now. There's Bollig, but he doesn't do enough other things well to get enough ice time to thrive in that role. This is where the absence of Lance Bouma is really going to be felt. Bouma and his reckless bumper car-style of forechecking -- hitting everything that moves and sometimes not hitting anything, but spectacularly trying and still getting his point across.

Bennett won't be Bouma, but he won't be Raymond either.

Boost to the Second Power Play

Secondary scoring is a well-documented area of weakness for the Flames.

You can't play Monahan, Hudler, and Gaudreau 22-25 minutes every game in the playoffs. They can't play the entire two minutes of every power play. Playing every other night and with long overtime games potentially mixed in along the way, it's just too much wear and tear.

The Flames need to start getting production from others, especially the team's second power play unit, which so far has been a rotating cast with Raymond, Joe Colborne, Backlund, David Jones, Josh Jooris and Markus Granlund all having had auditions.

It's been over two months since the Flames second power play unit last produced a goal. Jones scored it and it came on February 12 against the Kings. That second unit has been skunked on the man-advantage in the last 27 games, which is one-third of the season.

Make no mistake, Bennett makes that second unit instantly better. When he re-joined the Frontenacs, he had 11 goals and 13 assists in 11 regular season games. He's quick, his lateral movement is incredible, how he uses his edges of his skates when he bursts into the opposing end to give himself space is a quality none of the aforementioned possess.

Playoffs are all about tight one-goal games where that key power play goal could turn out to be the difference in winning the series. You need to get No. 63 out on the ice in that scenario to make something happen.

Success Breeds Success

The Flames have made it out of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs only once in the last 26 years. Once! That's terrible.

You can't overstate the significance and positive impact on this organization as a whole and on the development and confidence of its young core players, that advancing to the second round and possibly even further would provide. And in this year of all years, one in which the only question most of us were wondering in September was Calgary going to be good enough to make it out of the bottom three.

If accomplishing this means exceeding nine NHL games for Bennett and burning the first year of his entry-level contract, that would be a small price to pay for making it to the final eight.

Of the 974 players that played in at least one game in the NHL this season, only Nashville left-winger Kevin Fiala -- selected 11th overall last June, was younger than Bennett. Fiala, just called up by the Predators on Monday, also appeared in only one regular season game.

But at this time of year, don't judge the birth certificate, judge the player and don't judge him against the St. Louis Blues line-up either. He is on a team with far less depth. The only question that should be asked is this: Is Bennett one of Calgary's 12 best forwards right now?

My answer would be yes.

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