Would February 2022 Sam Bennett pity February 2021 Sam Bennett?
The NHL life was harsh and unforgiving for February 2021 Sam Bennett. He was the perennial underachiever, the gritty center who hadn’t yet lived up to the Doug Gilmour comparisons that poured in when he was drafted fourth overall by the Calgary Flames in 2014. In five full NHL seasons, he’d never topped 18 goals or 36 points. He was known mostly for taking inopportune penalties and elevating his game in the playoffs, though the deeper numbers suggest it was more the result of good puck luck than anything else.
Entering the 2020-21 season, Bennett didn’t even crack the top 15 scorers among that 2014 draft class, sitting well behind the likes of Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak and William Nylander. But was Bennett also the victim of a chicken-and-egg situation in Calgary? He hadn’t become the heart-and-soul, top-six power forward his draft profile promised, yet he was rarely entrusted with a large enough role to develop into such a player. Did he need to be given a chance, or did he have to earn it? His deployment suggested the Flames believed the latter. He was lucky to play 14 minutes a night.
The trade request – or agent leak – last winter made too much sense, then. Whether Bennett formally requested the deal or whether his agent. Darren Ferris, planted that seed with reporters didn’t really matter. It was no secret Bennett didn’t feel appreciated and, with the Seattle expansion draft months away, the Flames had too many quality forwards to protect. Bennett was the clear odd man out.
“It’s pretty crazy thinking back to about a year ago,” Bennett said in a phone call last week. “I was definitely a lot more stressed back then. There was a whole lot of uncertainty about the future, not knowing what was going to happen with me. It was definitely a more difficult time.”
When Florida Panthers acquired Bennett and a 2022 sixth-round draft pick for prospect Emil Heineman and a 2022 second-round pick April 12, the perception was that Florida GM Bill Zito was buying low on a rather broken player. The Flames had played Bennett just 14:08 per night in his 402 games with them. But the Panthers immediately experimented with the chicken-and-egg problem and…handed him a No. 2 center job on a line with star left winger Jonathan Huberdeau. What was the worst that could happen?
In Bennett’s first game as a Panther, he played 15:40 and delivered two assists. He scored in his second game but only played 10:37 because he amassed 17 penalty minutes, including an instigator misconduct. By the third game: 19:03. The fourth: 21:12. The fifth: 22:17. Bennett finished 2020-21 as one of the hottest players in the NHL, exploding for six goals and 15 points in 10 games and adding five points in five playoff games.
“I always believed in myself and believed I could be a player that has that offensive success,” Bennett said. “And as soon as I got to Florida, it was like a breath of fresh air. The team instantly gave me that opportunity, they believed in me. Really, they gave me more opportunity than I was even expecting. So once I got that, it was up to me to make the most of it and really earn it. And I’m just so happy with the way things have turned out. I feel like I can play my game again – how I always believed I could play.”
10 months later, Bennett has played 47 games in a Panther uniform, during which he’s amassed 27 goals and 45 points. Since the trade last April, per naturalstattrick.com, 315 NHL forwards have played at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5. Among them, Bennett sits fourth in goals per 60; 15th in points per 60; fifth in shots per 60; second only to Auston Matthews in individual expected goals per 60; fourth in individual shot attempts per 60; second in individual scoring chances per 60; and fifth in individual high-danger chances per 60.
Bennett is quick to credit his linemates, particularly Huberdeau, for the surge in production, but not even that explains the degree to which Bennett has excelled. Let it sink in for a moment that, in 5-on-5 play, on a per-60 basis, Bennett has graded as the second-deadliest scoring threat in the NHL behind Matthews since the trade. The Panthers appear to have gotten a steal when they extended Bennett last summer for four years and $17.7. million.
Not that Bennett is concerned about signing for too little. He’s thrilled to play for a team that saw the potential in him. He’s never had this much fun as an NHLer. And, when asking if he’s embraced the Florida lifestyle, you actually can hear him smile on the phone as he leans into an “Oh yeah…”
“I’ve been trying to embrace it as much as possible,” he added. “I bought a convertible car, and I head to the beach as often as I can. I live about five minutes from the beach. I head there all the time. Honestly, after being in Calgary for so many years, I’ve really been trying to take full advantage of the Florida lifestyle.”
The weather metaphors are almost too on the nose. He was out in the cold a year ago, wondering if he’d ever break through as an impact player. Now, he’s soaking in the sun with a smile, grateful toward a team that instantly warmed up to him.