TORONTO – Sam Bennett and Johnny Gaudreau followed alternate paths to the NHL. But when the two Calgary Flames prospects report for training camp in September, they'll be the focal point of an organization looking for a return to glory after missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the past five seasons.
The excitement which can accompany a rebuilding process often serves as motivation for those tasked with making the transformation happen.
"I definitely feel that all the time. There are younger guys in the organization that I think are going to help the organization become better," Gaudreau said at the NHLPA's annual Rookie Showcase. "It's exciting to be a part of that since you're a young guy and around a whole bunch of other younger guys."
For the past two years, Gaudreau has been among Calgary's most prized prospects. Selected in the fourth round (No. 104) in the 2011 NHL Draft, he starred for three seasons at Boston College, winning the Hobey Baker Memorial Award last season as the top player in Division I college hockey. But even before he won college hockey's highest honor with a remarkable 80-point season, Gaudreau emerged at the 2013 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship, leading the tournament in goals as the United States won gold.
While Gaudreau's arrival in Calgary has been almost four years in the making, Bennett has been a Flame for less than two months. Growing up in the hockey hotbed of suburban Toronto, he starred with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League before being selected No. 4 this June.
Their paths to Calgary's organization may have differed, but Gaudreau and Bennett share two very important things in common: a healthy respect for the game of the other and an unyielding will to play in the NHL this season and lead the Flames back to the top of the League standings.
"Obviously, the first goal is to make the squad. That's going to be my primary focus right now," Bennett said. "To hopefully be a part of that [rebuild] is awesome. I was in a rebuild with Kingston and that was a great experience for me. I think in Calgary it could be the same position. I'm definitely really excited."
Playing together at Flames development camp last month, it didn't take long for the two players considered the future of the franchise to develop a rapport. Each player made a number of big plays during the camp, with one Bennett shootout goal instantly becoming one of the top hockey highlights of the summer.
"He's a great player and a great teammate," Gaudreau said of Bennett. "Great guy off the ice. It was easy to notice that right when you met him. On the ice, he has great abilities with the puck. I was fortunate enough to get to play with him. He just makes players better around him. I'm excited to see him in the Flames organization down the road."
If Gaudreau was impressed by Bennett's maturity and stickhandling, Bennett was just as taken by Gaudreau's undeniable skills.
"His skill set and hockey sense [are] unbelievable," Bennett said. "He's a great player and he really did wow me a few times with what he was able to do with the puck."
After participating in development camp, each player found very different ways to wrap up their respective summers. While Gaudreau returned to his home state of New Jersey and skated alongside a group of retired NHL players and up-and-coming pros, Bennett worked in Toronto with famed trainer Andy O'Brien and a group of All-Stars, including John Tavares, Jason Spezza and Jeff Skinner. Sidney Crosby even stopped by on occasion.
"It's definitely really cool to be training alongside those guys," Bennett said. "You learn a lot just watching them."
Calgary's rebuild began in earnest with the arrival of Sean Monahan, whose 22 goals as a rookie ranked second on the team last season. Fortunately for the Flames, their top rookie in 2013-14 has already become fast friends with their two prized prospects.
Gaudreau and Monahan met last year as Gaudreau showed up for the final week of the NHL season and scored a goal in his one NHL game. The two players worked together this summer at a hockey camp run by Flames coach Bob Hartley in York, Pa.. Bennett got to know Monahan, also a suburban Toronto native, before his name was even called by Calgary at the draft.
"He talked about Calgary and what it was like. As soon as I got picked by Calgary, he was all over me, texting me and stuff. He's definitely a great guy to talk to," Bennett said. "All he was saying was good things about Calgary. After hearing him talk about that, it made me want to go to Calgary so badly. I was lucky enough to be picked by them."
Monahan became a franchise fixture as a rookie last season. When Bennett and Gaudreau arrive for training camp next month, the hope will be that they can do the same.
"I think we're both just raring to hopefully make the team this year," Bennett said. "We're both going to do whatever it takes."