CALGARY, AB -- On Monday morning, the Calgary Flames hit the ice for their regular pre-game skate and had a new face amongst the regulars.
Sam Bennett, who underwent shoulder surgery earlier in the season, took part in his first practice with the team since he started skating three weeks ago.
"I've been waiting a long time to be practicing with the guys again," he grinned. "I was pretty excited for the practice, I was even a little bit nervous. Definitely, it's a big step and I was really happy to be out there with the guys again.
"I've been working really hard for the last three weeks on the ice. I've been getting skated pretty hard. Definitely being out there with the guys, it was really good to be back with them again."
The 18-year-old, who was drafted fourth overall in the 2014 NHL Draft, has made steady progress since he began training and while he feels great right now, he knows the risks involved with trying to push himself too hard and trying to initiate contact too early.
"I'm moving along really well," he explained. "I think I'm maybe even a little ahead of schedule. There's still a little bit of work to be done, still in the yellow jersey. I'm getting closer but still a little ways away from playing again.
"No matter how good I'm feeling, you've got to listen to the doctors. You've got to take it step by step. You can't be rushing something like this. Definitely a couple more skates before the contact, for sure."
Just as he stated when Bennett started skating in January, Bob Hartley emphasized the organization's approach with the youngster's recovery: slow, steady, and patient.
"It's just part of the process of rehab that we're doing with everyone," Hartley said. "It's Christmas morning for Sammy, he's been waiting for this for a long time but we're going to do what we do with all of our players. He's a very important piece of this organization and it won't be any different than any other players.
"It's all about rehab, it's not about using him or anything, it's all about building him up, getting him to the next level where he's going to be in contact drills. At this time we don't have a timetable for when he's going to have a regular colored [jersey] or regular line."
When Bennett does take that next step and begin full-contact practices with the team, the Flames will have a decision to make.
Since the centre hasn't played this season, Calgary has a nine-game window in which he can play without burning a year on his entry-level contract. If they keep him longer than that nine-game stint, that counts as year one on his contract.
The Flames also can assign him to his junior team, the Kingston Frontenacs (OHL).
"It definitely crossed my mind a few times," he said of the upcoming decision. "I'm wondering as much as all of you guys about what is going to happen in the next couple of weeks. Again, I'm just going to practice as hard as I can, prove to everyone that I belong up here, and we'll see what happens."