Sunday, December 24, 2017

Living the Dream of a White NHL Christmas: Former Farmhands Thriving with the Flames

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From Etch A Sketch (1960) to Pong (1972), from Cabbage Patch Kids (1983) to Tickle Me Elmo (1996), from the Nintendo Wii (2008) to Fingerlings (2017), the must-have item topping childrens' Christmas wish lists changes annually.

There's no such variety for hockey players toiling in the minor leagues.

For them, it's the same thing every year and in 2017, Brett Kulak, Mark Jankowski, David Rittich and Garnet Hathaway all received that ultimate gift.

Unwrapped on Oct. 3, Oct. 23, Nov. 24 and Nov. 29 respectively, the four former members of the Stockton Heat received a one-way ticket -- at least for now -- to the NHL.

For everyone but Hathaway, it's the first time they've arrived at the annual holiday break on the NHL roster of the Calgary Flames.

Mark Jankowski
"It's definitely going to be a great Christmas, it feels good to be going home as an NHL player," said Jankowski, who flew back home to Ontario on Saturday morning to spend his time off with his sisters, brother and parents.

For Kulak, his trip home was shorter. He hopped in his vehicle after Friday night's game and headed up the QE2 to Stony Plain on the outskirts of Edmonton.

"It feels good for me," said the third pairing defenceman. "This is another step in the right direction that I want to take in my career."

A similar sentiment was echoed by Rittich.

"So happy that I can be here with these big boys and playing with and against the best players in the world," said Rittich. "It's so great for me."

Residing at the moment at a downtown hotel where he was recently joined by his fiance, Nikola, Rittich isn't travelling anywhere for the break other than to the Frolik home on the 25th. Fellow Czech Michael Frolik invited the two of them over to enjoy the big day.

"It's nice for them to ask us, because Christmas at a hotel is, umm, not the best," said Rittich with a chuckle.

Rittich is particularly excited about being in Canada after last year, his first season in North America, spending the holiday break in California.

"That was different because the weather is way different. There, I didn't see snow the whole time," Rittich told me. "In my hometown, it's pretty high for Czech Republic, we got awesome white Christmas, so I'm happy we'll have a white Christmas here."

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Confidence on the Rise

For Hathaway, this is the second year in a row he's flown back home out of Calgary at Christmas. But this time around, he says it has a different vibe.

Garnet Hathaway
"I feel like I've come a long way from where I was," said the native of Kennebunkport, Maine. "The physical aspect of my game hasn't really changed, but I'm in a different role on the team right now. I worked hard in the summer to try and grow my role and try to contribute to this team more, so I'm going to keep working towards that."

The numbers reflect how Hathaway's game and usage has evolved.

Last season in Calgary, he had five points in 26 games. This year in half the number of games, he already has six points. His ice time is up, his role on the depth chart is up -- playing third line alongside Jankowski and Sam Bennett. Also up and an attribute he sees in all four of them, is his confidence.

"You can't walk on eggshells and stay up here," Hathaway said. "You look at all the guys. How Ritter has played -- he plays every game, every play in practice, like it's do or die. You look at the work ethic of Janko and Kulie, I think Kulie is probably the first guy at the rink every day and has been since I've known him."

Also on the rise is the faith being shown in the four of them by coach Glen Gulutzan.

"In my talks with Janks and Hath, I've said, 'Hey, I don't want you to play nervous. Janks message was play good defensively so I can trust you, but play and don't be scared to try things, but you've got to be good defensively'. With Hath, it was the same thing."

Slowly but surely, their solid on-ice performance is earning them increased trust from the Flames skipper.

A press box regular to start the year, Kulak is now a fixture in the everyday line-up and is seeing his ice time increase. Hathaway has started to get shifts on the penalty kill. Jankowski has become a regular on the power play.

"Usually the stubborn coaches are the last guys that come into that development model as you get set in your ways, especially with your old guys," admits Gulutzan. "For us to move forward, you have to give those guys -- when they're proving it -- you have to give them a little more bite and then see if your team can get to a little bit of a higher level."


Flames Development Philosophy

While he is quick to acknowledge that not everyone is on the same trajectory, Gulutzan says he likes the '20-50' model as he describes it where if circumstances allow, you can start guys off with a string of games in the NHL. Then when that player goes back to the minors, that helps them be that much more ready for the next call-up.

Glen Gulutzan
Hathaway and Kulak have both experienced similar development paths where they got a taste, went back down, and now are thriving in what's becoming a longer -- and perhaps permanent -- stint with the NHL club.

"That's a really good development model for me when a guy is starting to get in the league because what 20-some games can do is confirm to a player that I can play here," Gulutzan explained to me. "Then the next time they come, whether it be a year later, I'm going to do a little bit more to be there because I think I can play there on a regular basis.

"In Janks' case, he earned it by his play here in training camp. He was very close. Then he went down there and kept it going so we brought him back. Rittich is on that same level. He proved it down there. Now let's give him a little taste, see if he can prove it up here and he's doing well."

Gulutzan credits the philosophy of general manager Brad Treliving and the instruction provided by Stockton coach Ryan Huska and his staff.

"We've done a great job of developing our players the right way," Gulutzan continued. "It's Tree's plan to have those guys cooked nicely before we bring them up here. Husk and his staff are doing a great job. They're developing them and now they can come here and they can contribute right away. That's when you know you have a strong organization, when you're not having to develop your players in the NHL."

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Standouts in the Minors

Asked if there's a feeling of pride when you have players graduate to the NHL, Huska says a little bit, but he also says that's just the Stockton staff doing its job.

Ryan Huska
"It's nice to see them have success because all four of those guys were really great team guys and true pros in regards to putting time into their games," said Huska, who is in his fourth season behind the Flames' AHL bench.

"As much as we're proud for what they've been able to do in the early phase of their call-ups, they deserve a lot of the credit. All four of them were very diligent in their work habits and working on their game in regards to being consistent with it and making improvements. All four are also competitors, which is something that you look for all the time."

Asked if the success of any of them thus far had surprised him, Huska said absolutely not. He then expanded upon each guy and why.
  • On Kulak: "His ability to stick with it and continue to belief in himself is what has separated him from some others. He probably had the bumpiest road of all those guys by spending a lot of time in the ECHL his first year and he maintained the belief in himself and his ability and through it all, he continued to put in the work to make sure he was getting better, no matter where he was, or what positions he was being put in."
  • On Jankowski: "He got himself to the point where he gained confidence last year here, but this year he came down and was dominant early on in the season for us. He had a stronger belief that he could be a guy that in the middle of the ice, controlled the ice. I don't think there was another centreman down in the American Hockey League that had his ability in regards to distributing pucks and being the big man that everybody's looking for."
  • On Hathaway: "Two words for him would be dependable and consistent, and he makes people better. So if you want to call him a multiplier or whatever that word might be, you know what we were getting from him each and every night and it never changed."
  • On Rittich: "Competitor is the one word you think of when you talk about David because he really competes hard. Whether it's practice or a game, he put everything into it all the time. He hated to get scored on. Part of his character is if we lost a game 1-0, David wouldn't have been happy. If we won a game 10-9 and he gave up nine goals, he'd be the happiest guy in the dressing room. He's a real team guy where he wants to do whatever he can to help his team have success and sometimes that's just coming to the rink with a great, upbeat attitude, which we saw every day here."

While Huska still has his team atop the AHL's Pacific Division at the break with a 16-8-3 record, he says they have certainly felt the loss of those players.

"It's hard to replace Garnet's energy and his dependability and compete that he would bring each and every shift. It's hard to replace a big man like Mark down the middle of the ice where we relied on him in all those situations and it's hard to replace David where basically he had one loss while he was here. When he was in the net, he was winning for us all the time.

"So you are losing some real, key people out of your line-up but at the same time, that door is open for some other guys and this is their great opportunity to try and take advantage of a little more ice time or being a guy more counted on in different areas."


Gives Others Hope
  
One of those guys still in Stockton, anxiously awaiting his first NHL call-up, and being counted on even more now is Andrew Mangiapane.

Mangiapane is a particularly interested observer considering he opened the season on the same line as Jankowski and Hathaway.

Andrew Mangiapane
"I usually watch the games on nights we don't play and to see Hath and Janko both playing well and producing, I'm happy for them," said Mangiapane. 

He says their success also gives him added confidence.

"When they do good up there, it gives me hope that I can do good as well if I get the chance," said the 21-year-old second-year pro, who now finds himself playing on a line with Brett Findlay and Ryan Lomberg

"Obviously, you want to be in the NHL right now, but you have to take your time. Play great down here and work on things you need to work on and when you get called up, make the most of your opportunity."

Huska agrees that for his players, seeing guys get promoted gives everyone a little extra boost of confidence.
  
"Last year, there weren't a lot of injuries and call-ups, so we had a lot of guys that were here for a large portion of the year. For our guys to see those faces going up early this year, having success and helping Calgary win some games, it's very fresh for them and I think they realize that I'm not that far off. If I can put in a little bit more work and I can be consistent with what I'm trying to do in the role I'm expected to play in, there's a chance."

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Band of Brothers

Roughly a year apart in age, for Jankowski, 23, Kulak -- turning 24 in two weeks -- Rittich, 25, and Hathaway, 26, a kinship between them has developed. They've all put in the time to reach the ultimate destination. While some have been at it longer than others, it wasn't a quick ascent for any of them.

Jankowski, who first reported to Stockton after his NCAA career at Providence College wrapped up, spent 78 games with the Heat.

Hathaway, who went a full four years at Brown University, has been in the AHL for parts of four seasons, accumulating 173 games worth of AHL experience.

Brett Kulak
Kulak has logged 156 games in the minors, most of those in the AHL but 39 coming in the ECHL in 2014-15.

Other than a 20-minute cameo appearance in game 82 for the Flames, Rittich spent all of last season in Stockton.

While sharing thes crease with Jon Gillies, that only resulted in 37 games, not to be forgotten is Rittich spent the previous two seasons with Mlada Boleslav in in the top Czech league so added up, that's over 100+ games of pro development on the resume.

"Sometimes we fall back on stories of being in the minors, so it's pretty cool," said Kulak, who just recently welcomed in Jankowski as his roommate after he got the nod to go ahead and find a place to live. "We definitely spend a  lot of time around each other so we all have that feeling that we're all helping each other through the whole thing,"

Hathaway agrees that a bond has developed between them.

"We have some history together. We all went through a lot together. It is the dream to be here. To share it with guys that you put a lot of work into it with, that means a lot."

For Rittich, as he overcomes the additional obstacle of learning a new language -- something that has come a remarkably long way in a short time -- that familiarity has helped him a bunch in Calgary.

"We're now together for two years, a couple of the guys for a longer time. For me, it's way better. They know me and who I am and I know who they are. It's better for everyone and it's good for all four of us," said Rittich.


Patience is a Virtue

The promoting of young, exciting players into the NHL will never happen fast enough to quench the thirst of rabid fans. That's just the way it is and it's not anything unique to this market.

In fact, to have four that finished last season in Stockton all contributing already this season in Calgary, that's a number that is higher than average.

Whether it's Mangiapane, 20-year-old defenceman Rasmus Andersson, or perhaps an older guy like Marek Hrivik, 26, who is next, expect the Flames to steadfastly stick to their development formula because they've seen it work and right now are reaping the benefits.

Jankowski and Hathaway make up two-thirds of what's been Calgary's most effective forward line in December. Kulak's ice time is increasing and Rittich has won his first three starts.

"I just want to give the biggest chance to win for the guys and show my best," said Rittich. "For me, it's most important if we win. If you look at the standings and you can see that we have lowest goals against and we have 10 points in 20 games. Or if you have higher goals-against and you be first in the league. So what is better? It's first place. For me, it's definitely more important than my numbers."

The model to develop prospects is one of patience, ongoing work with the development staff under the direction of Ray Edwards and for GM Brad Pascall, it's surrounding the young players with veterans to show them the way.

"All of our veteran players have been really good trying to create the right environment down here for us," said Huska. "A few years back, that was Aaron Johnson for Kulak. Last year, Mike Angelidis, he played the game really hard, all the time, and I think that rubbed off on Mark and Garnet. This year, we have just an outstanding group of older guys -- Luke Gazdic, our captain Rod Pelley, Cody Goloubef, Colby Robak has been excellent, Hrivik has been excellent and of course, Tanner Glass has joined us now too.

"Glass is an absolute true pro in regards to how you take care of yourself and prepare and consistency in regards to playing a role. He's another guy that I think is someone who likely would have rubbed off on Hath. He's really good to have around young players. Just the way he approaches the day to day, he's really a student of the game. He wants to understand it and asks questions and he really, really takes cares of himself and makes sure he's ready to be at his best."

Hathaway sees the importance of those types of players and the positive influence seasoned veterans can have in young minor league dressing rooms.

"(Angelidis) last year, such a good guy and a great pro. He came to work every day. He has his sternness about him, but he's easy to talk to. It was a great environment to play in and to learn," said Hathaway. "And Glasser, he's played a long time. He knows what it's like to make it and he knows what it takes and that's a big thing for the guys to learn."

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Final Word

On Thursday in the Flames first game back out of the break, they're at the SAP Center in San Jose where in the afternoon, Stockton will play the San Jose Barracuda.

"Just to say hi, they'll probably come to the game. Hopefully we get to see them, talk to them, catch up. I think it will be pretty cool," said Mangiapane.

With 11 goals and 29 points in 27 games to lead the team, it seems more a matter of when and not if that Mangiapane will get to see his ex-linemates on a more regular basis and by that, I'm not referring to them getting demoted.

With it likely that at least a few forwards will exit the organization in the off-season -- Matt Stajan, Freddie Hamilton and Jaromir Jagr all come to mind -- there will be openings.

Perhaps by this time next year, Mangiapane will have already received what's on his Christmas wish list.

"I've just got to wait, and hopefully that day will come."




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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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 usually play, eventually that role is all anyone ever expects them to play and they get pigeon-holed into having certain 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.




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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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.




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