CALGARY, AB -- It's been quite the year for Sam Bennett.
After his Kingston Frontenacs were swept in the opening round of the 2015 OHL playoffs, the fourth overall pick at the 2014 NHL Draft continued his postseason run in NHL with the Calgary Flames.
Netting three goals in the Flames’ journey to the second round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the product of Holland Landing, ON, a village of roughly 8,600 that is about a 30 minute drive from Toronto, thinks he proved he’s beyond spending the 2015-2016 hockey season back in the major-junior ranks.
“Being around the guys and finally getting that chance to play just shows that I can play in the NHL,” Bennett said. “I got to accomplish my dream ever since I was little. It was an amazing experience for me, for sure.”
With a shoulder injury limiting him to just 11 regular season games with the Frontenacs this year, Bennett’s baptism by fire in the NHL playoffs gave the rookie his first real taste of playing against men.
He grabbed the opportunity to prove his worth by the horns, tallying a pair of goals and an assist in the Flames 4-2 Round 1 series victory over the Vancouver Canucks.
In Game 3 at the Scotiabank Saddledome, Bennett took some punishment in front of Canucks netminder Eddie Lack’s crease, where he banged in the game-winner to lift the Flames to a 4-2 triumph.
From there, the Flames were left with few options when it came to their torrid prospect.
With their AHL-affiliate in Adirondack out of their playoffs and nowhere else to send the 6-foot-1, 178-pound centre, the Flames burnt the first year of the 18-year-old’s NHL entry-level contract when they inserted him into Game 3 of Round 2 against the Anaheim Ducks.
As the Flames made their first Western Conference semi-final appearance since 2004, Bennett continued to contribute as a winger on a line with centre Mikael Backlund and Joe Colborne, scoring his third career NHL playoff goal in Game 1.
According to Flames coach Bob Hartley, giving the franchise’s young guns a chance to shine is all part of the plan.
“If there is an organization that’s shown faith in younger players, it’s us,” he said of the Flames promising core of budding rookie forwards in Bennett, Johnny Gaudreau, Josh Jorris and Micheal Ferland.
Like the Flames, Bennett’s development continues.
Bennett made the most of his time in the big leagues as a winger, but he hopes to make a return to his natural position of centre when he comes back to Calgary for training camp in August.
As the Flames cleaned out their lockers at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Tuesday following their series defeat to the Ducks, Bennett said he’ll return to Ontario, where he’ll spend the off-season in Toronto working with renowned personal trainer Andy O’Brien, who’s previous clients include Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby and women’s hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser.
“There are things that we all need to improve on,” he said. “Obviously I need to get a little bit stronger and a little bit bigger. I'm excited this is just the first step and I can come into training camp next year with even more confidence and know that I can play in the NHL.”
“I am comfortable in any position but I think I felt more natural back when I got to play centre again,” he added. “It felt good and I enjoyed playing centre for sure.”
Should he become a full-time Flame next season, Bennett would wrap up his junior career with 65 goals and 90 assists in 128 OHL games, all with Kingston.
Entering his 19-year-old season, Bennett is eligible to either play for the Flames or the Frontenacs. Under CHL guidelines, playing in the AHL is not an option.
Wrapping up his first taste of NHL action with a successful playoff stint, Bennett knows he’s set the bar high for himself as he’s all but locked up a spot on the Flames’ 2015-2016 roster.
“They're going to be a lot higher than what they were coming into training camp last year,” Bennett said of the organization’s expectations for the budding forward. “I think for everyone expectations are going to be higher after what we were able to accomplish this year. We want to accomplish more so that will be the goal coming into training camp.”