PITTSBURGH -- Beau Bennett's superior vision on the ice is a major reason the Pittsburgh Penguins envision such a great future for the 21-year-old rookie forward.
Most NHL scouts will say on-ice vision is a natural instinct one is born with. But to hear Bennett tell it, it wasn't until his teenage years that he developed that innate ability to see the ice.
Growing up in Southern California, he was far more likely to see the asphalt.
A first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2010, Beau Bennett has skated alongside stars Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang during the first month of his NHL career. (Photo: Len Redkoles/NHLI)
"Roller hockey was my main sport until I was 14 or 15, and then I made the switch over full-time [to ice]," Bennett said. "Roller hockey actually helped me so much with my vision and passing. It's such a passing game; you don't really get many open shots, so usually all the plays you see in roller hockey are tic-tac-toe. You're always trying to find the open man. I think roller hockey helped me translate my pass-first game over to ice."
A first-round pick of the Penguins in 2010, Bennett has fit in the NHL while skating alongside some of the National Hockey League's biggest stars during the first month of his NHL career.
When reigning League MVP and scoring champion Evgeni Malkin has been healthy, Bennett has been his regular left wing. Bennett also has played on Pittsburgh's top power-play unit, which includes NHL scoring leader Sidney Crosby as well as Kris Letang, the NHL's leading scorer among defensemen.
Against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN), Bennett will play with James Neal, a 40-goal scorer last season, and center Dustin Jeffrey. Malkin will miss the game with an upper-body injury.
"He's getting more comfortable," Crosby said of Bennett. "It just takes time, but he's got the skill set and he's shown it at different points. As long as he keeps learning, he'll keep getting better, and I think being put in that position is going to allow him to do that the fastest. But he's doing a really good job there."
Bennett claims he's always been a "pass-first guy," but that tendency has been nurtured during the early stages of his NHL career. Many rookies often enter the League with a predisposition to defer to veteran teammates, especially big-name stars like Malkin, Crosby and Neal. But Bennett's inclination to pass actually was helped by a wrist injury sustained last winter that sapped some of the zip from his release.
"As long as he keeps learning, he'll keep getting better, and I think being put in that position is going to allow him to do that the fastest. But he's doing a really good job there."
-- Penguins star Sidney Crosby on teammate Beau Bennett.
"The wrist has helped me deter from shooting, so I feel comfortable passing as of right now, just until I get strength in my arm back," Bennett said. "In the summer it'll definitely get better, and hopefully next year my shot will be back where it should be. But as of right now, I usually look for the pass first."
That's the way Bennett has been since he was a youngster growing up in Southern California. Born three years after the Los Angeles Kings acquired Wayne Gretzky, Bennett said roller hockey was the first sport of choice for many children his age.
As the Gretzky-led Kings captured the hearts of area sports fans, the team began assisting in the sponsorship and administration of local roller hockey tournaments -- the same tournaments that gave Bennett his introduction to hockey. While competing in these tournaments, there's even an outside chance the young Bennett may have bumped into his future coach.
"I participated in some of the tournaments, Southern California roller hockey tournaments at the beach and such," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who played for the Kings from 1995-2000 before enjoying four seasons with the cross-town rival Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. "I'm going to get out some old pictures of the event to see if Beau's in the background. That would be the right time.
"One of the players Beau talks about watching was Ray Ferraro. I played with Ray on those [Kings] teams. Beau might not have known it, but he was watching me play."
Bylsma agreed that a background in roller hockey might push a young player to develop playmaking skills and on-ice vision. They've also helped him seamlessly fit with the likes of Malkin, Crosby, Neal and Letang.
"Whether he got it from roller hockey or not, Beau's a playmaker," Bylsma said. "He sees the ice so well, whether it be on the power play or on the rush. He looks to make plays. He certainly can score, too. He has a good shot -- a sneaky shot. That's something he has to work on a little more.
"He really has been getting stronger in the last five games versus the first five [in the NHL], and I think he's felt a little more comfortable."