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Bennett Eyes Spot with USA

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Everyone expected the Penguins to have multiple invitees when Team USA announced the roster for its 2014 Olympic Orientation Camp, so it was no shock to see the names Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin on the list.

Beau Bennett in his Team USA headshot
(Getty Images)

There was a surprise addition that most hockey observers probably didn’t anticipate being invited to the two-day camp held on Monday and Tuesday at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Virginia – blossoming 21-year-old second-year forward Beau Bennett.

Bennett himself was caught a little off guard when he received the e-mail from USA Hockey shortly after returning home from a summer vacation.

“There was a lot of stuff going through my head when I got it,” Bennett said. “I was really excited at the time. I got some texts because I guess it was on before I opened my e-mail. It was kind of shocking.”

The Gardena, California native’s inclusion on the 48-man roster invited to Northern Virginia wasn’t shocking because Bennett lacks the skills and work ethic to be included among the best of the best American hockey players, but more because he currently has just 26 NHL regular-season games under his belt and no significant international experience with USA Hockey.

None of those factors mattered much to Dan Bylsma and Tony Granato, Bennett’s coaches with the Penguins and Team USA.

Both men have high hopes for the up-and-coming sophomore, penciling him into a spot on one of the top lines in Pittsburgh, where he will potentially have the chance to play alongside either of the Penguins’ superstar pivots: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They believe that taking advantage of that opportunity could put Bennett in a position to reach one of his life-long goals representing his country.

“Just like some of the other young players that were invited to (orientation) camp, Beau was not here for the ride,” Bylsma said. “He might not have the experience that some of the other players have, but by December, he will have played roughly 35 games on one of our top lines (in Pittsburgh). If he’s producing in that role, he will give himself a chance. The next three months are going to be huge.”

“The opportunity he’s getting to be a part of this 48-player group shows the respect that he has throughout the league,” Granato said. “He is going to have to have a great start to the year. He’s going to have to do whatever he can at the start to prove he should be a part of this.”

Last season Bennett quickly assimilated to the professional game following an injury-plagued two-year run playing college hockey at the University of Denver. According to Granato, one of the chief reasons Bennett’s transition went so smoothly was his ability to slide up and down the lineup.

Throughout the course of the season, Bennett found himself constantly shuffling roles depending on what the team needed that particular night. Sometimes that meant filling a scoring role next to Malkin and James Neal, and on other instances he had to muck and grind in a more defensive assignment on the bottom-two lines.

And all that back-and-forth shuffling doesn’t include regularly switching sides from left to right wing.

While many rookies might have trouble coping with not having a clearly-defined role, Bennett looked at it is a learning experience – one that he hopes to use to his advantage when it comes to snatching one of the prestigious openings on the roster USA takes to Sochi in February.

Bennett appeared in 26 games for Pittsburgh in 2012-13
(Getty Images)

“Hopefully, being able to play in a lot of different spots will help my chances,” Bennett said. “Last year in Pittsburgh I was between the fourth (line), third (line), second (line), (sometimes a) healthy (scratch). I can play a couple of different spots. I just want to help out wherever I can.”

Granato agreed with Bennett that versatility could go a long way towards his inclusion, especially with teams being able to take just a few extra forwards.

“What I liked about Beau last year was his ability to understand his role,” Granato said. “His attitude was great and he found a way to contribute in every role he had.”

Unlike the 2010 Olympic Games, this year’s tournament will be played on bigger ice surfaces, which could benefit someone with Bennett’s smart, cerebral skill set.

“I’m not the quickest guy per say, so I would enjoy having that extra time and space on the ice to make plays,” Bennett said. “Playing in college, our rival (at Colorado College) had an Olympic-sized sheet, so I always enjoyed going down there. It will be a whole new animal on the Olympic sheet.”

The even-keeled Bennett seems poised to capitalize on his tremendous opportunities in 2013-14, knowing that he needs to take care of priority No. 1 – making sure he is doing his job in Pittsburgh every night – and then everything else will take care of itself.

“I don’t think (being considered for the Olympic team) is added pressure,” Bennett said. “Hopefully, if you play well enough, everything works out. You don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself. That’s when you start playing poorly.

“It’s just a step being invited to this camp – there is still a lot of work to be done.”

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