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Bennett bulked up looking to stay with Flames

by Aaron Vickers

PENTICTON, British Columbia -- Having one NHL game to his credit didn't hinder prospect Sam Bennett from turning in a solid performance for the Calgary Flames in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

He's now looking -- and looking for -- bigger.

The 19-year-old has added bulk to his 6-foot-1 frame in the hopes of a full-time stay with the Flames this season.

"I had a really good summer," Bennett said Friday as one of 31 Flames participating in the Young Stars Classic. "It's nice to have a full summer of training and working hard. I knew I had to get a little bit bigger in the offseason. I'm happy with the size that I came in with (about 190 pounds after playing at 175 last season). It was a really good summer and I'm excited to get going here."

What likely would have been Bennett's rookie season was halted by shoulder surgery last October. Five months of rehabbing in Calgary led to an assignment to Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League.

An early exit from the OHL playoffs allowed Bennett to gain some NHL experience.

"Getting into those games and proving to myself that I belong in this league and I can play in this league, that was huge for my game," said Bennett, who had three goals and one assist in 11 Stanley Cup Playoff games. "I knew what I had to work on over the summer and now I have a chance to do that. I think I'm extremely ready for this season."

Ryan van Asten, Calgary's strength and conditioning coach, said there is a noticeable difference from last September in Bennett, Calgary's highest pick ever (No. 4 in the 2014 NHL Draft).

"To be honest, you can see Sam Bennett just physically, his stature, how he carries himself, he physically looks bigger to the naked eye," van Asten said. "Just in talking with him in regards to his fitness testing, it's translating to that aspect. He's certainly matured over the course of the year. When he came back from his shoulder surgery to now, it's a significant difference in his general size and how he carries himself. It's very noticeable.

"From what I've seen now, he's taken a step from that. So where he was last September to this September was a big jump."

It comes from the experience gained, Flames assistant general manager Brad Pascall said. (The Flames qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2009, and won a playoff series for the first time since 2004, defeating the vancouver Canucks, before losing to the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Second Round.)

"I think we saw a dramatic turn during his rehab," Pascall said. "When he came to us in early December and really worked hard, worked his way into a man's body and being around our team, being around fitness and conditioning every day as part of his rehab really shaped him for his summer program.

"Having the experience he did with the playoffs and getting a taste of one regular-season game and then the playoffs along with the rehab training he had, he really knows what it takes to be in the NHL and what NHL guys do to be at their best. We're confident he had an exceptional summer training."

Seemingly hiding the injury -- a torn labrum in his left shoulder -- coming into his first training camp, and now returning a year later with a clean bill of health, has made a difference for Bennett.

"Way better," he said. "I felt pretty good last season, but I knew there was something in the back of my head that wasn't right. This season, I feel 100 percent. It's a different feeling. It's a good feeling. …

"It was really tough on me last year with not even knowing if I was going to play. All that time working and not getting to play hockey was really tough on me. It did make me a stronger person for sure. That was huge just being around the guys all last year and seeing how they prepare for games and practices. It helped me a lot when I did get my chance.

"I feel a lot more comfortable this year, a lot more confident. I think that it's going to help me in my performance on the ice and how I prepare off the ice as well."

Bennett said he knows nothing is a given in terms of extending his NHL experience.

"It doesn't matter if you've played 100 games in the League or you haven't played any, everyone has to earn a spot again," Bennett said. "That's what I'm going to try and do."

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