CALGARY – When training camp opened last year, all talk of Sam Bennett revolved around the bushy beard he showed up with.
This fall that honour goes to Johnny Gaudreau.
"I certainly hope I didn’t look like that," chuckled Bennett of the Keanu Reeves patch-job no. 13 elected to show up with.
This year the banter around Bennett revolves around his opening day placement Friday on the second line. Yes, the same spot alongside Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik previously occupied by Matthew Tkachuk.
With Tkachuk’s contract situation predictably dragging into camp, all eyes were on who coach Bill Peters would plug into the left side of the 3M Line. It’s telling that after a summer of contemplation, Bennett is his go-to guy to round out the top six.
For now anyways.
"I definitely saw an opportunity for myself coming to camp this year and I hope I can make that jump and make it a permanent thing,’ said Bennett, 23, who admitted he was hoping Peters would give him an opening look-see there.
"You never really know until you get here. Things can change. There’s a business side of it and things happen throughout the year, so you’ve always got to be prepared to step in and now’s a time for guys to step up and I could be one of those guys."
Sure could. He has the junior numbers that suggest he can certainly step up his game offensively. But can he gain the coach’s trust that he’s capable of the defensive responsibilities such an assignment entails?
"First and foremost it’s definitely a defensive role because that line plays against the other teams’ top players," said Bennett, who has largely had third and fourth line gigs since being drafted by the Flames fourth overall in 2014.
"If I’m not responsible then I’m not going to play there. But obviously there’s the offensive side as well."
In his four seasons in Calgary he’s scored between 11 and 18 goals annually, including 13 last season. Far below what anyone expected.
But long gone are the days he’d peg his performances on points alone, as the junior sniper has done well to prove he understands there are many ways to contribute to a team’s success.
"I can tell you early on in his career he’d be driving home after games and if he didn’t have any points he felt he didn’t have any contribution," said Flames GM Brad Treliving, who watched Bennett play a more physical game last season, by design.
"As a guy that’s been through the league now, he knows he can impact the game in other ways. I still think there’s more offence there, but he’s been able to impact games other than goals and assists."
Last year he proved that with his fists, stepping up to defend teammates to the tune of five fights – one less than the NHL lead in that category.
It was an impressive show of maturity and understanding of the game that belied his 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame. Thanks to the acquisition of Milan Lucic this summer, it’s a task he might not be called upon to do as much.
"I love it," he said of the addition while wearing a massive grin underneath his mustache."He’s one of the biggest and toughest guys in the league.
To have a guy having your back on the ice, you’re going to feel that much bigger and that much stronger. It’s a great feeling having him on our side."
Drafted as a centre but used largely on the wing as a Flame, the left-shooting Bennett now sure seems to have a solid grasp on what it takes to be successful in today’s game.
That also means rolling with the punches sure to come as Peters tries different players on the second line before eventually having the luxury of returning Tkachuk to his previous spot.
"I just look at it as just another day," he said of the Day 1 assignment.
"Things move around all the time during the year. It’s a good starting point for me. I know there’s an opportunity there for me there this year, so I’ve just got to go out and earn it. That’s my goal. The main thing is consistency in my game. I’ve got to play hard and I’ve got to do it every game. You can’t take games off or things are going to move around, so that’s the main thing I’ve got to work on."
If only he could convince Gaudreau to end the beard experiment, like he did.
"He loves it, but I’m telling him to shave it and just keep the ’stache," said Bennett.
"I don’t know if I can convince him, but I’ll keep working on him."
Following conversations with various people he is close to in the organization, Sportsnet.ca has learned restricted free agent Andrew Mangiapane has dropped his asking price to $850,000 on a one-way contract and $875,000 on a two-way deal.
It’s a $200,000 reduction from his initial salary request, bringing the two sides closer to a potential resolution to get the 23-year-old winger into camp.
The team is standing by its qualifying offer of $715,000 on a two-way deal, which is their prerogative given the fact the eight-goal scorer (in 54 NHL games) has no arbitration rights and his sample size is small.
Although it’s still early in camp, it’s a regrettable impasse given the opportunity that could be afforded the junior scoring star on the left side.
A prolonged absence from camp threatens to stymie the momentum he built late last year when he established himself as an everyday NHLer by scoring eight goals in his last 28 games, not to mention a key playoff goal.
The debate over a one-way or two-way deal is moot given any attempt to demote him this year would result in him being snapped up by any number of NHL teams happy to employ him.
FIRST DAY LINES