Midway through a tight game against a division rival, the Calgary Flames needed a boost.
The Flames’ most recent outing saw the visiting San Jose Sharks dominating a game they led 2-1 and were on the verge of breaking wide open.
Flames coach Glen Gulutzan needed to find a way to inject some fight into a lineup struggling to get out of its own zone.
Not generally the type to mix up his lines like most other coaches, Gulutzan decided his top trio needed help.
Enter Sam Bennett.
Gulutzan promoted Bennett to the left side of the top line in exchange for Johnny Gaudreau, the NHL’s third-leading scorer, who moved to Mark Jankowski’s third unit for the remainder of the game. It worked.
“We were looking for a spark and I thought we got it,” said Gulutzan, whose club wound up tying the game in the third before a late giveaway cost them the game.
“It speaks to the fact (Bennett) has played pretty well and I didn’t think the top line was winning many battles. Benny is a guy who can win a lot of battles and it helped them out in the third. Both lines created a little bit.”
Gaudreau converted a Garnet Hathaway pass to score the game-tying goal and Bennett helped lift Sean Monahan’s line out of its funk with some good offensive forays.
Point being, none of this could have happened a year ago, or even five weeks back when Bennett’s confidence matched his production – nil.
Fifteen games into what many thought would be his breakthrough season, the highest pick in franchise lore (fourth overall in 2014) had yet to record a single point.
An assist the next game was followed by his first goal in Game 17.
By then Jankowski had arrived to anchor the third line between Bennett and Jagr, which did wonders to start building chemistry the Flames so sorely needed outside of its top two lines.
Three weeks ago it finally clicked. Three goals and eight points in a seven-game stanza had Bennett finally living up to the lofty expectations he’s been saddled with for three-plus frustrating years.
His penchant for taking bad penalties has disappeared of late and those who refused to give up on him now seem to feel vindicated.
More importantly, he feels better in his own skin.
“I feel like my game’s been going in the right direction and our line has been generating chances and I’ve felt pretty good about my game the last couple weeks,” said Bennett, 21, a six-foot-one, 200-pound native of Holland Landing, Ont.
“Even when it wasn’t going in we were getting a lot of good looks. As long as you’re getting those I knew the production would come.”
Admittedly, there were plenty of days he wondered if things would ever turn.
“Definitely you have that thought at times of the year. It can be frustrating,” said Bennett, whose 18-goal rookie season was followed by a disappointing 13 goals and 26 points last year.
“But you’ve just got to keep telling yourself to stick with it and the points will come.”
Fact is, even when Bennett isn’t on the scoresheet he’s the type of grinder who can effect change in a game other ways – something the winger with four goals and 11 points takes great solace in.
“I don’t want to be just relied on for production,” said Bennett, a physical player whose line with Jankowski and Garnet Hathaway has finally given the Flames a third line that can help take pressure off the top two.
“I want to help this team win any way I can. That’s my focus when the production isn’t coming.”
It’s no coincidence his recent success comes with him as a winger, where his assignments are simpler.
Up the middle is where he has long struggled, making the Jankowski arrival that much more important.
Gulutzan’s focus with Bennett has long been on his play away from the puck.
“I’ve never had a question with Benny with the puck,” said Gulutzan.
“He’s a tough guy to battle the puck with. Great one-on-one skills. He’s just learning to support his teammates and is reloading better. The skill is there. I think he’s got chemistry with Janks and that always helps.”
Jankowski has indeed played a major role since being called up nine games in, proving quickly he’s an everyday NHLer capable of making players around him like Bennett better. It also, mercifully, bumped Bennett to the wing.
Jagr’s guidance hasn’t hurt either.
“This year compared to last year, mentally is where I think he’s made the biggest step,” said Flames assistant GM Craig Conroy.
“Last year I could tell he was depressed and worried. This year he got off to a slow start but he’s still lively and having fun. He knows if he keeps doing it the right way eventually it will change. It already has for him.”
Bennett insists pressure hasn’t played a role in his struggles.
“Playing in a Canadian market, there’s always going to be pressure all the time so I don’t think that had anything to do with it,” he said.
Conroy isn’t so sure, citing the burden of immense expectations when drafted top four.
“The one thing about high draft picks is everyone expects instant success,” said Conroy, pointing to rookie sensations like Matthew Tkachuk and Sean Monahan as examples.
“Benny works hard and he’s finding his identity in the league. Some guys find theirs right away – some guys it takes longer. I remember when Backs (Mikael Backlund) came into the league, everyone wanted instant results. It just takes longer for some guys. Everyone has got to be patient with young guys. I know for me from age 23 to 28 it was a completely different game.
“It’s going to come.”