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Flames' Bennett knows he has to prove himself

by Aaron Vickers

CALGARY -- Following a roller-coaster season that began with major surgery and ended with a high-pressure audition in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Sam Bennett maintains he took the entire process in stride.

The Calgary Flames' 19-year-old prospect is so insistent that the ride that saw him go from training-camp hopeful to sidelined for five months by shoulder surgery to junior standout to playoff hero -- all in the span of a single season -- hasn't elevated his expectations of what's to come in the least.

Flames rookie Sam Bennett scored three goals during the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. (Photo: Getty Images)

"It's been a crazy year," Bennett said during Flames development camp. "At some points it was really tough on me, and other points it was the best time of my life. It was a crazy year, but I was really happy with the way it turned out.

"I'm still only 19 years old, so I think there is tons that I still need to learn."

Bennett understands that his 11-game audition in the 2015 playoffs, when he had three goals and an assist in games 2-12 of his NHL career, might help him win a spot in the Flames lineup next season, but it won't guarantee it.

After all, he spent enough time in Calgary last season while rehabbing his shoulder to catch the "always earned, never given" motto of Flames coach Bob Hartley.

"That's what we say," assistant general manager Craig Conroy said. "'Hey Sam, you had a great run. You've got to come back better, and stronger, and faster, and with the right attitude.' It's still the NHL. There are no givens. You play bad in training camp, and that's not good.

"His mindset is he's going to do this and this and this, but you just don't want to feel like it's going to be given. You want him to know he has to come and earn it. It's earned, not given. That's Bob's motto. They all know it, and I think he'll be ready."

Conroy recognizes the confidence Bennett has in himself, but he also feels the 6-foot-1, 178-pound center will show up in September and play like he has something to prove.

"He's got that swagger. When you have that, you feel that, and you can see it in a player," Conroy said. "It's only going to make him better. I expect him to come in and have a real good camp and a great preseason and him making the team."

There's still plenty of time before that decision is made.

The fourth pick at the 2014 NHL Draft, Bennett had an assist in his NHL debut in Calgary's final regular-season game before the impressive 11-game run in the playoffs. But he isn't about to change his approach after his early success.

"I feel like I proved myself in the playoffs," Bennett said. "Obviously it's not going to change the way I act or anything. I'm still going to work as hard as I can to make this team again. It doesn't change anything.

"That's what I'm going for, that's my goal. I'm going to put expectations high and I expect to achieve them and that's what I expect."

It's exactly the mindset Conroy wants Bennett to have coming into training camp.

"I think we just want to go in and … you're part of the team, but you still have to make the team," he said. "It's not a foregone conclusion. He's got a great attitude. It's about being on the team and being a big contributor in his mind. That's what we want. You want guys that have confidence and faith in themselves.

"He says it and he believes it, but he's not over the top."

Bennett's confidence is even more impressive given his 2014-15 season nearly was completely eliminated by a torn labrum in his left shoulder that limited him to 15 games -- 11 in the regular season and four in the playoffs -- with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League before he joined Calgary for its first playoff appearance since 2009.

He'll arrive in camp in September with a decidedly different demeanor from the one that saw him push for a pro roster spot a little more than two months removed from his draft day.

Bennett is still taking it all in stride.

"When you go back and you look at all the games and the stats, he led our team in scoring chances in the playoffs, and in limited minutes too," Conroy said. "He didn't play the minutes he probably thought he was going to play.

"With him, he's pretty grounded. He had a taste of it. Don't put too much pressure on yourself."

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