There is more than one playmaker named Sam at the head of the 2014 NHL draft class — savvy Sam Bennett has played his way on to the shortlist of potential top-5 picks next June.
A year and a half ago, Kingston Frontenacs GM Doug Gilmour staked a large part of his team-building on Bennett, who had been phenom Connor McDavid's minor hockey linemate. Bennett shifted to centre and delivered an auspicious debut with 18 goals and 40 points on a young team. Now the 6-foot, 178-pound centre is regularly performing a "passable impression of Patrick Kane" for the No. 2-ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League rankings. Bennett has begun his draft season with 20 points in his first 10 games.
The breakout might trace back to an exceptionally productive spring and summer. Bennett and Fronts blueliner Roland McKeown's transition from precocious rookies began in April, when they were underage contributors to Canada's gold-medal effort at the world under-18 championship.
"The confidence Sam got from going to the under-18 world championship and then the Ivan Hlinka [in August] gave him a huge boost — he’s a believer now," Kingston coach Todd Gill says of Bennett, whom TSN analyst Craig Button has touted as a potential lottery pick. "He believes he can be a force in this league and he’s done so each and every game.
"Once he grows into his frame, he’s a scary prospect," Gill adds.
About that: Bennett spent his off-season training with Andy O'Brien, whose clientele also include a certain Sidney Crosby. Being in the gym at the same time as other NHL pivots such as Ottawa Senators captain Jason Spezza and the Carolina Hurricanes' Jeff Skinner, a recent Calder Trophy winner, gave Bennett a new appreciation
"Those guys kind of keep to themselves but you are always looking over to see how they are doing stuff," says Bennett, who is listed at 6-foot and 178 pounds. "That always helps a little bit. They’re a whole other level of focused and they do every drill to the best of their ability. They never slack off on anything. That’s what I noticed.
"It was a great summer for me, I put on 10 pounds and felt a lot stronger in my legs," Bennett adds. "Going over to Ivan Hlinka was an unbelievable experience."
In just 10 games, the Holland Landing, Ont., native has 20 points, putting him halfway to his rookie-year total. On a two-game road trip last week, Bennett and linemates Henri Ikonen and Spencer Watson tallied a combined 21 points. That fit with the aim of becoming a good distributor than than just an individual talent who beats defenders 1-on-1.
"It’s almost to a point where I have to pull him back a bit," Gill says. "He’s so brimming with confidence and ability that sometimes you can’t get the puck off him. My one message to him was, 'everyone knows how good you are with the puck, let’s start distributing pucks and see what happens and it will make you even more dangerous than you are now.’ He’s taken that to heart and you look at the numbers his linemates [Ikonen and Watson] are putting up."
Between Bennett, McKeown, Watson and defenceman Dylan DiPerna, Kingston has become appointment viewing for NHL scouts. One benefit is that the attention gets spread out among teammates rather than being heaped on one player.
"They can relate," Bennett says. "Just having them beside me helps a lot. It’s nice having a few friends around to support you."
A fast 11-game start hardly makes Kingston's turnaround a fait accompli, especially for a franchise trying to distance itself from four decades of post-season futility. The Frontenacs being No. 2 in the CHL goes against the historical grain, but it was part of their plan.
"It's been a really good start," Bennett says. "I have two great linemates in Henri Ikonen and Spencer Watson. Our team, you can just tell, you can just feel there’s a different vibe in the room than last year."
1. What is a specific element of your game where you want to see improvement by season's end??
"I don’t want to be known as a liability in the defensive zone so definitely I need to work on that area of my game, just be responsible.
"Faceoffs is [also] definitely a big thing that I've been working on in practice. I haven’t been winning as many draws as I’d like to. That’s an important part of the game, starting with the puck."
2. In your mind, what would scouts say is the biggest thing you have to work on between now and when you'll be on the cusp of turning pro?
"I've always tried to model my game after Mike Richards of L.A. [the Los Angeles Kings]. He's got a great style of play. He's a great leader and just a great all-around player who’s responsible in the defensive zone as well as the offensive zone."
3. Who do you consider to be the toughest defenceman you have faced so far in the OHL?
"Brady Austin [who was recently traded from Kingston archrival Belleville to the London Knights]. He's a big boy [6-4, 230] and he was thrown up against our line a lot when he played him."
4. Which teammate(s) do you credit for helping you get used to playing major junior?
"Our captain this year, Michael Moffat, has been a great influence for us. He was great with the young guys last year and even this year he’s really helping the rookies with getting adjusted to the OHL and staying positive."
5. The Olympics are coming up in Feburary. Let's say you were not a hockey player ... what event could you imagine yourself doing?
"I’d probably say something like maybe snowboarding, downhill skiing, something with jumps. I used to ski and snowboard for fun when I was younger — probably 10 or 12 — and not into hockey so much, and had a lot more time."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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