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Bennett growing into role with Pacific Division-leading Flames

Young forward called 'great teammate,' becoming solid all-around player

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

EDMONTON -- Sam Bennett's journey to become an effective, hard-to-play-against forward for the Calgary Flames this season had its speed bumps and detours.

It even had a spell where the No. 4 pick of the 2014 NHL Draft sensed he was off course.

"Before, I think I was kind of lost on where I fit in here," Bennett said, who's in his fourth NHL season. "And I didn't know if I'd be a centerman or a winger. So, I've kind of found comfort on the wing. The combination of that and the more years I play, the more comfortable I'm going to feel."

 

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The 22-year-old has 19 points (nine goals, 10 assists) in 48 games this season, including five points (three goals, two assists) in his past six games.

The numbers don't tell the whole story. In fact, numbers likely have been a reason why he got lost in the first place.

"When you're drafted where he's drafted, two things," Calgary general manager Brad Treliving said. "One is that there are considerable expectations, including considerable offensive expectations. And at the time of the draft, he was (NHL) Central Scouting's No. 1. So, there's this expectation he's going to be this high offensive player."

The second, Treliving said, was the sequence of events that occurred after Bennett was selected by the Flames in 2014.

He was excellent in his first training camp, further feeding expectations, but shoulder surgery wiped out most of his 2014-15 season. He returned on April 11 to make his NHL debut. Then, had four points (three goals, one assist) in 11 Stanley Cup Playoff games in the spring of 2015, a performance Treliving called unbelievable.

"So now, expectations were even higher," Treliving said. "And as much as there were outside expectations, there were expectations from the player."

Video: DET@CGY: Bennett puts Flames ahead with second PPG

Bennett had 36 points (18 goals, 18 assists) in 77 games as an NHL rookie in 2015-16, but when the numbers declined to 26 points in each of the next two seasons, confidence was shaken and a career path seemed less certain.

"Coming from junior as a highly skilled guy and a high pick, everyone's expecting him to score a lot of points and in this League, it's hard," veteran center Mikael Backlund said. "So, you have to start with the work, not that he hasn't worked early on, but he's learned if you always play the right way, you're going to get rewarded."

Bennett's growing maturity has helped him realize that things other than scoring are valuable in the NHL. He's always had grit to his game and has allowed it to again be part of how he plays.

"He's always been secretly a tough guy, not afraid to jump in or stand up for a teammate," Backlund said. "Just a great teammate."

Bennett understands he has plenty to learn to become the best NHL player he can be.

"Every year you get more and more comfortable in the League," Bennett said. "You get more confident. "But I don't think there's been one thing. I didn't really change anything from past years. I think there's still a lot of growth I need to have in my game and there are a lot of things I need to improve. Obviously, I think there's a lot more that I can show and do."

Judging a young player too soon is dangerous, Edmonton Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock said. He has watched Bennett while coaching against him with the St. Louis Blues from 2015-17, the Dallas Stars in 2017-18 and this season with the Oilers.

Video: TBL@CGY: Bennett nets own rebound for 100th point

"There was a lot of talk last year about Sam, and not positive," Hitchcock said. "And I think at the end of the day, you can't really judge what a player was in junior, offensively. Sometimes guys are really good as junior players offensively and it doesn't translate into the NHL.

"But if he can check and he works and he competes at the puck, there's going to be a place for him in our game. Now it might not be as a top-three player, it might be as a seven-eight-nine forward ... but as long as he competes at the puck and stays with it, there's room for him."

It's precisely that picture, one with more dimensions of how to play, that Bennett has realized, Treliving said.

"It's realizing that if you're a 20-goal scorer in the League, that's pretty good," the Flames GM said. "But there are 60-some-odd games in which you don't score, so what else are you doing? Young players, it's hard for them to comprehend that. But Sam has now grabbed ahold of that and sees that he can have a positive impact, really impact the game outside of just goals, assists and points, and be comfortable with that. He's not a fun guy to play against and ...he's an important player for us."

Bennett's better fit is one of the many pieces that have fallen into place for the Flames (32-13-5) this season. Calgary is 10-1-2 in its past 13 games and first in the Pacific Division with 69 points, six better than the second-place San Jose Sharks.

"Our team's really comfortable right now," Bennett said. "I think what makes us so dominant is that we have all lines that can contribute and everyone's on the same page. And this is the closest group that I've ever played with. Our team is so close and it's fun coming to the rink every day."

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