I think there was a bit of a learning curve. I’m happy to get my first year under my belt and hopefully I can come in next year and have a stronger year. - Sam Bennett
CALGARY, AB -- Never satisfied.
Always demanding more from himself.
That’s Sam Bennett to a T.
Not many 19-year-olds have accomplished what the rookie forward has in such a small body of work.
A crucial piece of the youth movement in Calgary, the 6-foot-1, 186-pound forward had, as most first-year players endure in the planet’s top hockey circuit, an assortment of highs and lows in his first go-round.
The pace, the style, the grind.
Understandably, it all took some getting used to.
“I think there was a bit of a learning curve,” Bennett said. “I’m happy to get my first year under my belt and hopefully I can come in next year and have a stronger year.”
Not that his rookie campaign – where he posted 18 goals and 36 points – was anything less than respectable.
While he continued to adapt to the NHL game, though, Bennett’s first full season did not come without its share of inconsistencies.
It took the youngster nine games to bury his first goal of the season, before he struggled through a tormenting pair of 18-game stretches – from Nov. 15 to Jan. 7 and again from Feb. 19 to March 26 – without lighting the lamp.
“I definitely had a lot of ups and downs this season. Pretty inconsistent,” Bennett said. “I think for me that was definitely the biggest challenge. I definitely have to figure out how to be a lot more consistent and avoid those long streaks without producing.”
As the saying goes, try to learn from the past but not dwell on it.
Even when the puck wasn’t finding the back of the net, Bennett tirelessly worked on his defensive, two-way game and displayed a sturdy physical presence that Flames head coach Bob Hartley describes as "not fun to play against."
Despite being offensively snake-bitten for sections of the season, Bennett never pumped the brakes.
It was just another obstacle the newcomer had to overcome.
His drive and patience paid off massively.
Bennett broke out for eight goals in five games, which included becoming the youngest player (19 years, 207 days) in Flames history to net a hat trick, and third youngest in NHL history, when he tamed the visiting Florida Panthers in January for four goals in one game.
In fact, he scored three of his four markers that fateful evening in front of a raucous C of Red within the opening 16 minutes and change.
Jack Hamilton (Toronto Maple Leafs, 1943-44) and Bobby Carpenter (Washington Capitals, 1981-82) are the only two players in NHL history to perform the act younger.
“He’s a kid who found the candy bag,” said Hartley, immediately following the impressive feat. “He got one, got four, and right now he’s digging in with a shovel.
“That’s a real good one that he’ll remember for a long time.”
Considered mature beyond his years, Bennett didn’t take his scoring spree for granted.
“Bob (Hartley) was definitely making sure that while I wasn’t producing I was still playing the right way,” said an appreciative Bennett, who, following his scoring outburst, was named one of the NHL’s Three Stars in January. “Playing smart in the defensive zone and learning the game there. I think that’s something I did pretty well for my first year.”
His deft scoring touch shouldn’t come as a surprise, however.
He racked up 155 points in 128 games over two seasons of junior with the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs before earning a late 2014-15 season call-up.
He notched his first NHL point on his first shift – only 33 seconds into the contest no less – when he set up a Micheal Ferland tally against Winnipeg.
The Flames faithful were then provided with a glimpse of Bennett’s combination of skill and tenacious play later that spring when he suited up for all 11 of Calgary’s playoff games and recorded four points.
His first NHL marker turned out to be the game-winner in Game 3 of their first round series with divisional rival Vancouver.
A miniscule number of teenagers can boast about scoring their first National Hockey League goal, let alone their first three, in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
By doing so, in fact, Bennett joined the esteemed likes of Wayne Gretzky, Dale Hawerchuk, Steve Yzerman and Jaromir Jagr as teens to score in the postseason.
Not bad company.
“You can see whenever he gets the puck now he’s a threat,” Flames captain Mark Giordano said.
A first round, fourth overall, selection in 2014, Bennett began his NHL career primarily on the left wing despite being a natural centre.
That, however, is liable to change.
“He has an eagerness to compete,” Hartley said. “He’s hungry, he’s relentless, he’s on the puck. I think he’s going to eventually be a centreman that is going to generate a lot of speed – one of his biggest attributes.
“We would have liked to play Sammy earlier at centre but for different reasons we just didn’t."
“I’m not sure what they are going to do with me,” Bennett said. “I think now getting the last whatever it was, 20 games at centre, it really made me feel comfortable playing in this league.”
A one-year wiser and more comfortable Bennett could be a scary thought for opposing teams next season.