When I found out I was playing, I think it was early yesterday morning and the first thing I did was text my parents and all my friends ‘I’m playing [Thursday] so you guys better watch’. - Sam Bennett
CALGARY, AB -- Sam Bennett’s patience is about to pay off.
The top pick (No. 4) of the Calgary Flames in the 2014 NHL Draft will make his long-awaited preseason debut Thursday at Scotiabank Saddledome against the Vancouver Cnaucks.
And the 18-year-old couldn’t be more excited.
“I’m really excited,” Bennett said. “It’s a game I’ve been waiting for for a really long time. I got to watch a few games and see what it’s like in [Scotiabank Saddledome]. I’m just so excited for my first game.
“When I found out I was playing, I think it was early yesterday morning and the first thing I did was text my parents and all my friends ‘I’m playing [Thursday] so you guys better watch’. It’s definitely exciting for me and my family, for sure.”
Bennett is bidding to make the Flames after spending the past two seasons with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League, where he had 36 goals and 91 points in 57 regular-season games last season.
But his groin has slowed the process.
The 6-foot-1, 178-pound center had a slow start to camp after sustaining a groin injury in Calgary’s Young Stars Classic finale. Bennett was held out of the third period of the 6-1 win over the Canucks in Penticton for precautionary reasons, but those escalated quickly as Bennett missed the first few days of training camp.
After finally resuming skating and declaring himself 100 percent on Monday, he will make his preseason debut.
“It’s his first game, so I just want to see what he brings at the NHL level,” coach Bob Hartley said. “We’re going to be playing a pretty good team, back-to-back. He’s going to be put in a big role. He’s going to get some big ice time. That’s the only way that we can evaluate him.
“With his injury, he kind of missed time and we couldn’t give him earlier games, so there’s not much we could do about this. Right now, we’re just going to try to fast-forward his progression, fast-forward his ice time.”
Bennett has impressed at every stage since joining the Flames organization.
At development camp in July, he was a standout alongside 21-year-old Johnny Gaudreau. At the Young Stars, Bennett again reaffirmed his status as a top prospect.
Thursday’s contest will be another challenge for Bennett.
“It was a good test, a good warm-up in Penticton,” he said. “The pace is fast. You didn’t have much time and I expect it to be even faster in even less time tonight. I’m definitely prepared for the game and really excited.
“I’m sure I’m going to be pretty nervous come game time but as soon as I step on the ice, all the nerves disappear and it’s just another hockey game.
“I’m not going to be trying to do too much. I don’t want to be gripping my stick too tight. I think the first couple of shifts, just get the feel of it and obviously just get back to playing my game.”
If those jitters shine through, Bennett will have plenty of support to lean on.
He’ll be playing with fellow prospect Michael Ferland and veteran David Jones, who has 320 career NHL games under his belt scattered over seven seasons.
He also has captain Mark Giordano in his corner, too.
“I’m pretty sure he’s going to be pretty nervous,” he said. “I’m trying to encourage him to play his game. He’s a great player. It’s nice to see that he’s back. That small issue he’s had is fully healed. Just play his game, try to make plays out there, try to stay as loose as possible out there.”
The advice started to pour from Giordano in Calgary’s morning skate.
On several occasions in the practice, the two shared discussions.
“He has the ‘C’ on his jersey for a reason,” Bennett said. “He’s a great leader and he’s been really good to me, giving me advice out there. He was helping me with little things in the defensive zone that are going to help me a lot moving forward. There’s so many great leaders and guys on this team that are really helping me.”
Giordano’s best advice for Bennett, though?
“I’m sure for the first two or three shifts, he’s going to be pretty nervous out there and you’ve got to get bumped,” he said. “That may be a good thing to happen to you in those first two or three and then go from there.”