Sam Bennett enjoying fresh start with Panthers ahead of Calgary return

Florida Panthers centre Sam Bennett shoots against the Nashville Predators in the third period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, April 27, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

CALGARY – Sam Bennett asked for a trade, wanted a trade and has benefited greatly from it.

But on the eve of his first return to the Saddledome as a member of the Florida Panthers, the longtime Calgary Flames forward revealed he didn’t see the swap coming.

“When I was playing under Darryl (Sutter) I loved it,” said Bennett on the Eric Francis Show on Monday, admitting that the arrival of Sutter made it seem like his situation in Calgary was finally moving in the right direction.

“I really liked playing for him. He was giving me a lot more opportunity and I was really happy playing under him. I thought things were turning around for me for sure. I didn’t think I was going to get traded at the deadline after Darryl came in.

“I knew there was still a chance, but it seemed like I wasn’t going to.”

After years of being pigeonholed as a middle-to-bottom-six winger, Bennett felt empowered by Sutter who gave Bennett increased responsibility and ice time shortly after being hired to coach the Flames last March.

However, five weeks later, Bennett’s early season trade request was granted, as he was sent to Florida at the deadline for a 2022 second-round pick and prospect Emil Heineman.

At the time, Bennett was in the midst of a four-game point streak in which he had five helpers.

What followed has been a never-ending scoring binge with the NHL’s most prolific squad, giving Bennett 21 goals and 38 points in 39 outings in south Florida.

At the time of the trade, it was considered a solid return, especially considering the Flames would have been unable to protect Bennett in Seattle’s expansion draft.

However, it’s only natural for frustrated Flames fans to wonder what could have been had Sutter had more time with the 25-year-old.

It’s impossible to believe things could have turned out any better in Calgary for Bennett than they have in Florida, where he signed a four-year, $17.7-million extension this summer.

“I’ve got a great group of guys here and our team is unbelievable,” said Bennett, as his team enjoyed a day in Banff.

“We’re having so much fun and lots of success, so I couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out.”

It has been a stunning reversal of fortune for the 25-year-old forward who spent six seasons in Calgary trying in vain to live up to his billing as a fourth-overall pick who was never able to duplicate the offensive upside he flashed in his playoff debut and rookie season.

Asked why he felt things never worked, he chuckled while trying to answer.

“That’s kind of a tough question, I think there’s a lot of factors,” he said.

“I think after a certain amount of time I just got put in a role and never really got the opportunity to succeed in a top-six role like I’m playing right now.

“Sometimes that happens and that’s just the way it is and you just need a fresh start.”

Did he ever.

Still, as he kept wondering if the grass could really be greener elsewhere, he admitted it was hard to finally give his agent the go-ahead to ask for a trade early last season.

“It was tough, I mean, obviously I enjoyed my time in Calgary,” said Bennett, who scored 18 goals as a rookie and was never able to duplicate it. (He has 15 already this year)

“I loved the team, I loved the players. The hardest part of being traded was not seeing the guys every day. I met so many good people in Calgary and friends I still stay in contact with today, whether it’s players, trainers or just good people in Calgary. That’s the tough part of the business, is that it is a business. At the end of the day you have to look out for yourself and do what’s best for you.”

For him that meant going somewhere where he could return to playing his natural position, centre, and get a chance to play meaningful minutes with regularity.

He got that immediately in Florida where he lit it up down the stretch alongside Jonathan Huberdeau and now anchors the NHL’s best second line with Huberdeau and Anthony Duclair.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence his success on the ice is mirrored by his happiness off it.

“It’s very different - it’s pretty much the complete opposite of life in Calgary,” said Bennett when asked about the lifestyle of a player in Florida versus Alberta.

“I go to the rink every day in shorts and sandals. I can walk to the beach from my house. It’s different and I’ve been enjoying every minute of it.”

Gone is the scrutiny that came with being an underperforming first rounder in Canada where glimpses of playoff greatness frustrated fans and coaches alike.

“You don’t have the same media attention in Florida, but I definitely have enjoyed it,” he said.

“I never had an issue with all the media, but it’s definitely a little refreshing being in Florida for sure.”

Bennett had four of the Panthers’ 16 goals over the last two games to move his club into first place overall.

By contrast, the Flames have scored just four times their last two outings.

With the Flames on a four-game losing skid and the Panthers averaging six goals a game their last nine, Bennett has every reason to be looking forward to Tuesday’s tilt.

The Flames will welcome Bennett back with a video tribute, which is sure to garner plenty of stick taps from former teammates and a solid applause from fans.

“I’m not really too sure what to expect - I hope they are just happy for me,” said Bennett, who still talks to the bulk of his Flames friends and went to dinner with a half dozen of them two weeks ago when the Flames visited Sunrise during his three-game suspension.

“It’s going to be exciting. Definitely going to feel a little weird coming back to the Saddledome and going into the away dressing room this time. It’s a game I’ve been looking forward to for a while. Can’t wait to get out there.”

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