After numerous stops and starts in two-and-a-half seasons as a pro, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Beau Bennett is finally starting to show signs he might have been worth that No. 20 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft.
"He's had some [bad] luck, but it's going good now," Penguins center Brandon Sutter said.
The biggest question for Bennett is, will he stay healthy long enough to fulfill his promise and prove without a shadow of a doubt that he was worth being a first-round pick?
Bennett is a long way from that considering he's played 61 NHL games, including 35 in the past two seasons. But if he can stay out of the trainer's room and off the operating table, he should be an important part of the Penguins' push for another Stanley Cup.
"Certainly Beau has shown he can play with good players and play on more of a checking line, but add offense to that line and be good defensively," Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. "The volume of games we hope now will start to get up there, and that will really help."
Bennett will play in his 15th game of the season Sunday against the New York Rangers at Consol Energy Center (12:30 p.m. ET; NBC, TVA Sports, SN). He has seven points this season and 28 in his career.
Injuries have stunted his growth as a player since his final season at the University of Denver.
Bennett missed all but 10 games with the Pioneers in 2011-12 because of a cut on his right wrist. He played almost a full season (65 games) split between the NHL and American Hockey League in 2012-13, but has missed 90 of the past 125 games Pittsburgh has played.
He missed 10 games early last season with a knee injury and then was out 51 games after having surgery on the wrist he injured in college. This season, Bennett sustained another knee injury in the preseason that kept him out of the lineup for the first 13 games. He played the next seven but was out for another 16 because of an ankle injury and the mumps.
Bennett's injury history is so bad he's tried to find some humor in it to lighten his mood and that of those around him. He recently recorded a promo for 105.9 The X in Pittsburgh, the Penguins' home radio station, apologizing to the fans in advance for his next injury.
"Basically the gist of everything is I can't get too down on myself," Bennett said. "It's been unfortunate. It's not like I've had chronic problems with certain things. It's just a fluky thing here and there, but it's not small-time injuries keeping me out. It's big-time injuries, surgery and whatnot. It's unfortunate, but I'm glad to be back playing right now."
The Penguins need Bennett in the lineup because of his versatility and the offensive punch he provides regardless of what line he plays on.
Bennett has looked comfortable and been productive playing right wing alongside Evgeni Malkin and Nick Spaling in the past four games. Malkin has seven points in that stretch; Bennett has one, but he's been a defensive conscience and a threat in the offensive zone.
Earlier in the season, before the ankle injury and the mumps set him back, Bennett was establishing chemistry playing with Sutter and Steve Downie. That was more of a checking line, but Bennett added an element of creativity. He had a three-point game in a 4-0 win against the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 13.
"The thing that I think is the biggest thing about him and why we work so well together is we kind of have a similar mindset when we're on the ice," Sutter said. "Defensively, he's pretty sound, and he just makes smart plays with the puck. He has creativity and has the mindset to make plays. That's why we've worked well together and that's why he works well together with pretty much anyone he plays with because he can adapt and adjust. He's got a little bit of everything in his game."
Right Wing - PIT
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 7
SOG: 30 | +/-: 0
Johnston praised Bennett's poise with the puck, suggesting the Penguins miss that element of his game when he's not in the lineup.
"He's always in on scoring chances, and we needed to generate more scoring chances," Johnston said. "I think he's helped in that regard. Certainly him and Sutter were a good pair in training camp; he's done a good job with [Malkin]. He's a complementary player who can play in a variety of roles, right or left side, but it's just his poise with the puck that has been key."
The Penguins hope by mid-February they'll have a healthy lineup featuring Patric Hornqvist and Blake Comeau, who are out and not due back until after the 2015 NHL All-Star Weekend, which ends Jan. 26. At that point the goal is to have Hornqvist and Comeau play with Malkin, and have Bennett compete for third-line minutes with Downie to play alongside Sutter and Spaling.
Bennett can elevate himself on Rutherford's planned depth chart with continued solid play as a wing on Malkin's line. He is finally getting a chance to play top-six minutes for the Penguins; now he has to stay healthy and prove he can do it over a number of games.
He's up to seven in a row.
"Honestly after the second knee injury I wasn't doing too well mentally, but after a while it goes away and it's fine," Bennett said. "I just [have to] know that I'm young and I'm going to keep working hard to sustain a lot of games in a row. Hopefully that's the run I can go on, because I feel like when I have played I've done pretty well.
"Even though I haven't had many games, I've progressed a lot since my rookie season, when I was just happy with getting the puck out of the zone. Now it's more making plays, trying to create offense. My mentality and the way I approached the game has improved a lot. People can see that. I'm not getting one or two chances a game, I'm getting five or six. It's positive in that regard and I'm happy with it."