Sunday, December 10, 2017

Breaking the Persona: Hathaway Showing Maybe There's More There Than Most Thought

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Samuel L. Jackson. Badass.

Morgan Freeman. Wise, old man.

Vince Vaughn. Smart-ass

In Hollywood, actors get typecast all the time. Based on the type of role they frequently play in their formative years, eventually that becomes all anyone expects from them and they get pigeon-holed into those characteristics.

It can be a tough persona to break.

Same thing applies in the NHL.

There are five words that over the last couple years have become permanently attached to Garnet Hathaway and it can be career-limiting:

We know what he is.

Energetic? Yes.

Physical? Yes.

Pain-in-the-ass to play against? Absolutely.

Offensive touch? No.

The latter, often a dagger to one's NHL aspirations, is a label you earn when you're an undrafted 26-year-old player who in a half-season's worth of NHL service has scored only one goal.

Making the Most of His Chance

But after three games filling in admirably, if not impressively, for Jaromir Jagr on the Flames third line, now I'm starting to wonder.

Do we really know what Hathaway is?

It's only been a week. I'm not suggesting anyone get out the eraser quite yet. But based on his play this week alongside Mark Jankowski and Sam Bennett against the Leafs, Canadiens and Canucks, I'm also not prepared to laminate his current label either.

The Flames picked up five of six points the past three games with the native of Kennebunkport, Maine, instrumental in the two wins -- both of them being third period comebacks.

Where in the past, Hathaway would have been mostly stapled to the bench alongside his fourth line linemates as the team rolled the top nine in a bid to get back in the game, this week Hathaway found himself at the epicenter of all the important goals.

Three points in two games. All on critical game-tying or game-winning goals. All coming in the third period.

Exhibit A - Scores tying goal vs. Montreal at 7:49 of the third period

Inside the Montreal end, Hathaway steps inside of Alex Galchenyuk to intercept a puck shot up the side-boards by David Schlemko. Hathaway gets the puck back to Brett Kulak at the blueline. Kulak's shot misses the net, but the carom off the end boards is retrieved by Bennett, who drags it out front for a quick shot. In the ensuing scramble, Hathaway barges his way to the top of the crease and is able to jab the loose puck past a sprawled Carey Price before being wrestled to the ice by Galchenyuk. Waved off initially, it ends up counting to tie it 2-2 when coach Glen Gulutzan successfully challenged the initial ruling of goaltender interference.

Exhibit B - Primary assist on Tkachuk's tying goal vs. Vancouver at 11:34 of the third period

Hathaway races to the side-boards to intercept Ben Hutton's attempted bank pass to Markus Granlund. He quickly glances over his right shoulder to see where his teammates are then after quickly settling the puck on his stick, Hathaway zips a backhander into the slot where Matthew Tkachuk corrals it, goes to his backhand and sends a shot into the top corner while falling.

Exhibit C - Assist on Bennett's winning goal vs. Vancouver at 18:50 of the third period

Ten seconds of intense pressure begins with Hathaway's dangerous chance from 10 feet out off a cross-ice pass from Jankowski. Anders Nilsson stopped the initial shot, but unable to control the rebound, the puck bounces around the front of the net where it eventually bounds off the skate of Hathaway to Bennett out front, who misses the crowded net on his forehand.

After Jankowski -- from behind the net -- chips it into the opposite corner, Hathaway gets good body position to outmuscle Michael Del Zotto for a 50-50 puck. In the ensuing two-on-two board battle, the puck squirts out to Bennett who curls off the sideboards, bowls his way into the slot and fires a backhand past Nilsson for the game-winner.

Maybe There's Something More There

This recent body of work has the voice in the back of my head whispering maybe, just maybe there's something more there with this player.

Glen Gulutzan addressed Hathaway's play of late after Saturday's game.

"We played Garnet Hathaway after training camp in our first game in Edmonton, but we had some roster issues, obviously, and he went down," said the Flames coach.

"We told him to go down and play hard and what he did was play extremely hard. He had 11 goals and was in the top 10 in the American League in scoring. We wanted to get him back up here."

If comedic actor and longtime star of The Office, Steve Carrel, can eventually re-invent himself by taking on a series of dramatic roles, who is to say it's not too late for Hathaway to turn himself into a serviceable third liner.

It's not like Carrel suddenly became a Shakespearian actor. For Hathaway, we're not talking about elevating him into the top-six, but can he bump up one spot on the depth chart and play in the top-nine?

Well, so far so good. Nine shots over these last three games. Being around the action isn't new for Hathaway, but spending so much time around the opposition net is. He deserves credit for the third line not missing a beat when he stepped in for the injured Jaromir Jagr.

Bennett, Jankowski and Jagr were going pretty good when the 45-year-old Czech went down with that nagging lower-body injury he's been battling. Hathaway has slipped seamlessly into that spot and kept that trio rolling, despite the absence of the NHL's second leading scorer of all-time.

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Continued to Improve in the Minors

While he hasn't until now been able to produce offence in the NHL, he's enjoyed plenty of success in the AHL, his points-per-game increasing as he accumulated more and more experience.

In his rookie season with Adirondack in 2014-15, he scored 19 goals and had 36 points in 72 games. Not bad as a first-year pro.

In his second year, he averaged just under a half-point per game with 8 goals and 21 points in 44 games. That year he also spent 14 games with the Flames.

Last year with the Heat, he was averaging two-thirds of a point per game with 8 goals and 20 points in 31 games. That earned him his longest stint yet in the NHL getting into 26 games with Calgary.

This year, he was averaging more than a point-per-game with 11 goals and 19 points in 28 games when he was jettisoned to Calgary.

With much of his time in the minors the last two years being spent with Jankowski as his centre, one also can't underestimate the impact that has had. Chemistry can be a powerful thing, regardless of where it is hatched -- at the Saddledome or at the Stockton Arena.

"The chemistry that him and Janko had down there, it's a nice little fit up here," said Gulutzan.

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Should Have Been Drafted

The other thing to keep in mind is this isn't a guy that has come from out of nowhere.

In his draft year in 2010, Hathaway was ranked No. 110 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.

That was higher than teammate Micheal Ferland (No. 146) and also higher than Ferland's Brandon Wheat Kings teammate and now Ottawa Senators' scoring star Mark Stone (No. 119), yet Hathaway went undrafted while Ferland and Stone were selected in the fifth and sixth rounds respectively.

As his story goes, Hathaway went off to Brown University for his full four years, but the Flames continued to keep their eye on him, eventually signing him to a one-year minor league contract.

After his impactful rookie season in the minors, he turned that into an NHL contract and next up on his wish list is a permanent NHL role. 

Final Word

It takes a long time to overcome first impressions and Hathaway will need to keep playing at the level he's at if he hopes to remain part of the top-nine.

But has he earned a spot in the top 12? Hard to argue that given what the team has gotten, or more so not gotten from the carousel of other players used in that role.

Even if that ends up being where Hathaway lands and that's still probably his career path at this point, he is showing right now that he can be a guy that in a pinch, can bump up in the line-up and play more important minutes and take on a bigger role.

That versatility will only further help him in his NHL career.

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Saturday, December 02, 2017

Janko and Benny: After a Three-Year Search, Has Bennett Found His Hockey Soulmate?

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Riggs and Murtaugh.

Lowrey and Burnett.

Jenko and Schmidt.

What makes a great buddy film is two characters that complement each other. They don't necessarily need to resemble each other or have similar characteristics -- and often they don't -- yet when you pair them up, it simply works.

On the big screen, we saw that chemistry with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence had it in the Bad Boys franchise. Most recently, we saw it with the partnership of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in 21 Jump Street.

On the ice, the Calgary Flames have also boasted a couple of popular and highly effective forward duos in recent years. They too have become great buddies.

Gaudreau and Monahan.

Backlund and Frolik.

But the one guy and central figure upfront that has not enjoyed the luxury of having a steady, longtime partner to develop and evolve with has been Sam Bennett.

Searching for the Right One

For Bennett, the carousel of linemates has been spinning like a merry-go-round since he broke into the NHL in the 2015 post-season.

In 2015-16, his most common even-strength linemates were Michael Frolik (37%) and Mikael Backlund (36%). But those two had each other and while it worked as a trio, the younger Bennett was the third wheel in that relationship. Bennett was the guy in the back seat of the station wagon.

Beyond those two, coach Bob Hartley tried an assortment of others with Bennett during his rookie season but without much success (percentages compiled via DobberHockey and are approximate):
  • Micheal Ferland (18%)
  • Joe Colborne (17%)
  • Markus Granlund (17%)
  • Josh Jooris (12%)
  • David Jones (12%)
  • Johnny Gaudreau (12%)
  • Jiri Hudler (10%)
  • Mason Raymond (6%)

Last year, the search continued.

Incoming coach Glen Gulutzan hoped to conjure up some magic by pairing up new free agent signing Troy Brouwer with Bennett in training camp and hoping the veteran and the kid would hit it off.

They didn't.

Nor did it work much better with Kris Versteeg or Alex Chiasson, despite each getting long looks with Bennett. Spending most of his even-strength time last season with those three -- Versteeg (41%), Brouwer (40%), Chiasson (40%) -- Bennett's production as a sophomore fell from 18 goals and 36 points as a rookie to just 13 goals and 26 points.

Bennett also spent some time last season with Gaudreau (20%) but again, he was spoken for already. Micheal Ferland (12%), Matt Stajan (9%) and Lance Bouma (7%) also spent time alongside him but there was nothing dynamic to be found. No sparks in any of those relationships.

Enter Jankowski

But maybe, just maybe, Bennett has finally found his hockey soulmate in 6-foot-5, 210 pound Mark Jankowski.

While still very much in the 'newlywed' phase of their time together, Jankowski (60%) represents the most stable relationship (proportionately) Bennett has been in yet. Don't forget that Jankowski was in the American Hockey League for the first three weeks of the season. Lately, that 60% has been darn close to 100%.

Since his call-up and the subsequent falling of dominoes that eventually saw Bennett shift to left wing and Jankowski inserted at third-line centre, the two have been constantly found side by side on the ice.

Jaromir Jagr (39%) has been Bennett's other most frequent even-strength linemate this season. Since returning from injury, he's been a fixture on the other wing.

But getting back to the kids, could the Providence College grad and 2012 first rounder be the player that completes Bennett?

We're a long way from knowing that for sure but based on their play much of the last month, there's plenty of reason to be hopeful if you're a fan, team management or Bennett himself.

Lovin' the Home Cookin'

On Thursday at the Saddledome, Jankowski had two goals with Bennett assisting on both.

Two nights earlier in the opening game of the homestand, the only Flames goal was scored by that same Jankowski-Bennett line.

Of course, don't forget the last game of the previous homestand. On that electric night in which Calgary won 7-4 over St. Louis, Jankowski had two goals and an assist and Bennett had his first goal of the season in a two-point night.

So between the two of them, that's 10 combined points (Jankowski, 4-1-5, Bennett, 1-4-5) in the last three home games. Doing it in front of the home crowd, now that's how you become fan favourites.

In the middle was that six-game road trip in which the trio got skunked, but the silver lining over those 12 days was they were still generating chances. Over those six games, the trio of Bennett, Jankowski and Jagr combined for 31 shots on goal and 53 shot attempts. There were a few pucks off the iron as well.

"Our line was playing well, we were creating chances throughout the road trip," Jankowski said. "I've always said, when the chances stop, that's when you've got to worry. I thought we were getting the chances and the goals will come if you stick with it."

Thursday was a game that the club hopes will be the springboard. Jankowski with the two goals on six shots, Jagr with four shots and a helper. Bennett chipped in two assists, had two shots and earned heaps of praise from the head coach. It added up to a dozen shots and a great all-round performance.

Bennett's Game Heating Up

Gulutzan noted that Bennett is playing some of the best hockey of his career in terms of creating chances.

"All the analytics we do with Sam, it was the second best segment as a Flame," Gulutzan said on Thursday. "These last 10 games as far as what he created and how many chances he had, it's just a matter of time when that happens."

We know the raw skill Bennett has -- he went fourth overall in the 2014 NHL Draft for a reason. He lit up the OHL when he was in junior and as a teenager, he scored 18 goals as a rookie in the NHL.

But there have been plenty of bumps in the road and to this point, he is still sitting at just one goal in 25 games this season. But the coach thinks it's coming and Bennett does too.

"I've started to feel better, our line has been generating quite a few chances," said Bennett. "I know that if the chances are coming, then eventually the production is going to come. So I'm just going to keep playing like I'm playing."

The trio will get a chance to keep it going on Saturday night against Edmonton. With Cam Talbot injured, they'll be shooting on back-up goaltender Laurent Brossoit, who will enter the game with an .876 save percentage.

"The more we play together, the more comfortable we're going to get and the more we're going to build that chemistry," Bennett added. "It felt really good (Thursday) together and I think we can keep building off a game like that."

Two Potentially Future Fixtures

What's especially appealing about the combination of Jankowski and Bennett is these are two young guys who are still very much finding their way in the NHL.

This has the potential to be a combination that can remain together for a long, long time and really blossom.

It's only the third season for Bennett, who we tend to forget only turned 21 in June. Jankowski is not that much older, having turned 23 in September.

These are two guys with bright futures and who knows, it might very well be with each other.

You get the sense Bennett wouldn't mind that.

"He's got unbelievable skill," said Bennett, when asked about his centre. "As he plays more games in this league, he's getting more and more comfortable and you can see it. He's really starting to find his game and it's a lot of fun to play with him right now.

"Every game, he's gotten better and better. Now he's starting to take pucks to the net and it's starting to work for him."

Having the NHL's second-leading point getter of all-time on the other wing doesn't hurt either. Jagr, 45, has been a nice chaperone for the other two.

"That line, and you can see with the chances and how they're getting rewarded, they're building their confidence and that's going to be big for our club," Gulutzan said.

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Final Word

For 13 and 23, they're not only linemates at 5-on-5, they play on the power play together too. They've got plenty in common.

For 11 and 67, there's a bit of power play time in there but where they're rarely found apart is on the penalty kill. Together, that's one of their things.

As Bennett and Jankowski mature, their resumes grow and Gulutzan gains more and more trust in both of them, you can envision a similar future for 77 and 93 too. That could include both power play and penalty killing as both have done that in the past. It may not be this year, but down the road.

Could Janko and Benny be the new Johnny and Mony? Could they be the new Backs and Fro?

It would sure make Calgary a far more formidable club if they have, indeed, finally found the right combination of ingredients to generate consistent third line production. If that's the case, look out.

"That top line has been unbelievable for us, it's definitely nice to contribute offensively and we know that we have to do that to have success down the road," Bennett said.

Bennett and Jankowski. Perhaps Calgary's next lethal weapon.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues that I've enjoyed and I'll occasionally use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


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