With the second-overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, the Buffalo Sabres will have a lot of options to consider once they’re on the clock.
One potential target could be Kingston Frontenacs center Sam Bennett.
Bennett, who will turn 18 on June 20, scored 36 goals in 57 games with Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League. He led the club in goals and, with 91 points, was Kingston’s leading scorer.
Bennett topped NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings and ended up No. 1 in its final rankings of the top North American and European skaters and goalies.
He joined Brian Duff and Andrew Peters for a segment Wednesday morning on Sabres Hockey Hotline and feels like he could help an NHL team right away in the fall.
“I do feel like I’m ready, but I’m just going to work my hardest this summer and when it comes to camp, I’m going to give it everything I’ve got,” Bennett said. “Whether the team is ready to take me next year or not, I’m still going to just keep trying to get better, keep trying to get stronger and do everything I can to make that team.”
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The 6-foot, 165-pound center from Holland Landing, Ont. sees himself as a two-way player that can be relied heavily upon in the defensive zone. In the 2013-14 OHL Coaches Poll, Bennett was voted Smartest Player, Best Playmaker and Best Stickhandler in the Eastern Conference. He finished as the East’s third-best defensive forward.
Of the three awards he won, Bennett said he takes the most stock in being considered the smartest player and that that awareness on the ice has helped him both in the offensive and defensive zones.
“That’s something I take a lot of pride in,” he said. “I’ve always thought I’ve been a pretty smart player, so to be recognized by the coaches in the OHL is a definitely a huge honor.”
Bennett was also second on the Frontenacs in penalty minutes with 118. He was suspended five games by the OHL in March for a high-sticking infraction.
He thinks some scouts have certainly noticed that he likes to play on the edge and the suspension hasn’t deterred him from playing that brand of hockey.
“I don’t want to be known as a soft player and I’m always trying to be aggressive,” he said. “Sometimes I do take it a little bit too far and I got suspended this year. But that’s part of my game, is the aggressive side and I’m not scared. I don’t shy away from anything so that’s something that I bring as well.”
In terms of which players he tries to model his game after, Bennett named two recent Stanley Cup winners in Mike Richards of the Los Angeles Kings and Jonathan Toews, the captain of the Chicago Blackhawks.
“They’re both great leaders and they’re not just one-dimensional. They don’t just provide the offense, they’ve also got the defensive side of it as well,” he said. “They’re two great players and growing up, I’ve always watched them and tried to play like them.”
Their ability to lead is also a quality he’s tried to emulate.
“I always try to be really focused. Leadership has always been a trait of mine,” he said. “I always try to be a leader not just on the ice, but off the ice as well.”
Another player that will be considered at the top of the draft, which will be held on June 27 and 28 in Philadelphia, is Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad.
Bennett mentioned that one thing he’ll be working on over the summer is improving his lower-body strength. It’s because he’ll be going against players as strong – and even stronger – than Ekblad in the NHL.
“Ekblad, he’s a great player and I’ve played against him for a long time. I played with him a few times, too and he’s an unbelievable defenseman and he definitely does have that man-strength,” Bennett said. “We’ve had a few really good battles this year, that’s for sure.”
Bennett said he’ll train with Andy O’Brien, who also works with Sidney Crosby and John Tavares.
“He definitely knows what it takes for me to get ready for the NHL next year,” he said.
Bennett’s father was a Maple Leafs fan and he was raised to cheer for Toronto. He wears No. 93 because of Doug Gilmour, who happens to be Kingston’s general manager. However, Bennett said his NHL allegiances will definitely shift to whichever team selects him in the draft.
“It doesn’t really matter to me in the end. Wherever I’m going to go, I’m going to love it and they’re going to be my new favorite team,” he said. “So really, it doesn’t matter too much to me.”