It isn’t surprising that the Calgary Flames have started strong in these playoffs, taking out the Winnipeg Jets in the qualification round and keeping the favoured Dallas Stars on their heels in the first round, tied 2-2 after four games.
What is surprising is that their leading goal scorer is Sam Bennett, who at 24 years old has mostly failed to capitalize on the promise of his fourth overall draft stock. He’s been in the middle of the Flames’ roster for the past five seasons, putting up decent but unspectacular third line winger production despite getting some power play time.
With five goals and two assists in eight playoff games so far, Bennett has been a key to the Flames’ offence, and his line with Dillon Dube and Milan Lucic has been the talk of the broadcasts for their hard-nosed play. That extra offence from the third line has also helped to compensate for both the lack of production from and injury to Matthew Tkachuk, who is one of the Flames’ most important players.
However, we know that wonky things happen in small sample sizes, and Bennett’s 22.7 shooting percentage in the playoffs is over double his career average. So is he doing things differently and earning those extra goals? Is his line truly playing much better than it was in the regular season? Or is this not much more than a nice run of luck?
Compared to how Bennett’s line performed in the regular season — which was not terrible but also not great for a third line — the praise they’re getting in the playoffs seems pretty legitimate. By both inner slot shots and shots overall they’re significantly above team average, while maintaining better than even control of shot attempts overall.
Where the line has struggled is in the passing game, which makes sense since none of Bennett, Lucic, or Dube are high end playmakers, and none of those three are known for being big time defensive players either.
Their lack of playmaking ability and weakness at disrupting opposing passing games does present a problem for the long-term success of that line, but remember that it’s a third line facing other playoff teams. This isn’t to say it’s not an issue to be vastly outplayed in that area, but it’s rare to see a third line that lacks a weakness.
The line isn’t perfect, but it’s very fair to say they’ve been playing better than they were in the regular season at least by shots. But what about Bennett specifically? Is he getting more and better shots compared to the regular season that would explain his big influx of goal scoring?
Overall, the answer is no. Bennett is getting a little more offence off the rush and is way more aggressive on rebounds in front of the net, but while those are both great improvements to have, it’s not nearly enough to naturally more than double his shooting percentage while his overall shots from dangerous areas have gone down a little.
From a shooting perspective, Sam Bennett is exactly who he was in the regular season. That’s never a satisfying answer when things are going well for a player, because naturally we all want to buy in to a great story, and we all want there to be something to point to as the thing the player changed to suddenly get this success, but it isn’t always the case.
The truth is, Bennett has been better overall than he was in the regular season, and while that improvement hasn’t manifested in his underlying shooting numbers, the reward for his improved play has come in the form of a nice goal scoring streak. So, where has Bennett improved?
He’s been far more aggressive without the puck, laying the body on opponents to create turnovers and bring some physical punishment to the game. In the regular season Bennett landed a hit on a puck carrier 0.3 times in every 20 minutes of ice time. In the playoffs, the number has jumped to 1.38 every 20 minutes, more than four times the rate of body checks.
Sometimes when a player gets that aggressive, they end up doing more harm than good by pulling themselves out of position and making their teammates vulnerable. But it’s important to note that these are body checks we’re talking about here, not hits. A body check involves the actual puck carrier, and a successful one removes the puck from the opponent. That’s what Bennett has quadrupled, so he’s getting in on puck carriers quickly and creating opportunities for his team to change possession.
Corresponding to those extra body checks, Bennett has been far more effective on the forecheck, contributing 2.57 successful defensive plays per 20 minutes in the offensive zone (meaning plays that force a possession change), compared to 1.78 per 20 minutes in the regular season.
Bennett’s defensive play has picked it up big time overall, as he’s nearly doubled his successful defensive plays outside the offensive zone as well. He’s blocking more passes, recovering more loose pucks, and recovering more rebounds in front of his own goaltender as well.
Sometimes when you improve your play drastically at one end of the ice, you get rewarded at the other end, and that seems to be the case for Bennett in these playoffs.