Evgeni Malkin and James Neal are world-class players, and someone from the Pittsburgh Penguins is going to have the enviable opportunity to skate on a line with them this season.
The favorite as training camp approaches is Beau Bennett, a player who had zero experience as a professional hockey player before 2012-13 and 47 games at the collegiate level before that.
Bennett had three goals and 14 points in 26 games as a rookie, and most importantly did not look out of place when on the ice with some of Pittsburgh's stars.
"We had a scrimmage just before the season started and he had the chance to play with better players," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. "He jumped out, and he showed he had the ability to think the game at that level. You can play him anywhere in your lineup. He has the ability and hockey sense to do that."
Bennett is listed at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds, and won't turn 22 years old until late November. He was a first-round pick (No. 20) in the 2010 NHL Draft, but missed all but 10 games of his sophomore season, in 2010-11, at the University of Denver because of injury.
He left school after two years and began his professional career in the American Hockey League last fall. He had seven goals and 28 points in 39 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate.
"He hadn't played a lot of hockey prior to turning pro," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "He didn't play a lot his sophomore season, and I think he really benefitted from the lockout, going down to Wilkes-Barre, playing a lot of games and learning the pro game. He showed he can play in certain areas of the rink, like in the defensive end and in the corners.
"Then, when he did have a chance in the National Hockey League, he showed that it wasn't just his skill and his hands and his hockey sense. He could be depended on to hold onto the puck, and he could be depended on to play defense for us. He did that."
Bennett isn't exceptionally fast but he is smart and smooth. He's not afraid to hang on to the puck for an extra split second to find an opening, and some of his flashes of creativity are glimpses of elite potential.
"He's almost more of a pass-first player," Shero said. "I'd like to see him get more of a shoot-first mentality, but that seems to be the way guys are sometimes."
If Bennett is going to play with Malkin and Neal, looking to pass the puck might not be such a bad idea; those two combined for 90 goals in 2011-12.
Bennett's passing ability could allow him to rack up plenty of points during his second NHL season.
"I think he really grew in the first half of last year while playing for Wilkes-Barre," Bylsma said. "He played 26 games for us, and showed what he could do power-play-wise, what he could do making plays with the puck. I think there is an opportunity for Beau, and I think he's capable of adding in that regard on our top six with our skilled players. I think he's going to surprise a lot of people by the end of the year with how he can help our team."
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