NHL on NBCSN: Sam Bennett hits ground running with Panthers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Florida Panthers. Blackhawks-Panthers coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Through a mixture of luck, linemates, and other circumstances, some 2021 NHL Trade Deadline additions prosper, while others flounder.

With a former Hart Trophy winner like Taylor Hall, we probably should have seen it coming. Now, many might say that, as the fourth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, we shouldn’t be shocked by Sam Bennett‘s scalding-hot start with the Florida Panthers. But, yeah, it’s a little stunning to see.

(The Panthers, Blackhawks, and plenty of NHL teams know from experience that draft pedigree doesn’t always guarantee instant results, with or without a “change of scenery.”)

After Panthers trade, Sam Bennett is red-hot — and lucky

In 38 games with the Flames in 2020-21, Sam Bennett only scored 12 points. Meanwhile, in seven games with the Panthers following that trade, Bennett’s already matched his goal total (four in both Calgary and Florida), and isn’t far from scoring as many points (10 with Panthers; 12 with Flames).

Heck, Bennett’s brings the spirit of that Wyatt Earp Flames playoff mustache from the Flames to the Panthers, considering he’s already been whistled for a matching 19 penalty minutes in both spots.

Bennett playoffs with Flames before Panthers trade
(Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Bennett accrued most of those penalty minutes via this fight:

[BLACKHAWKS-PANTHERS COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

When you see a player who’s never scored 20 goals (career-high: 18) or 40 points (career-high: 36), scoring more than a point-per-game (including a goal every two games), it’s fair to be suspicious.

No doubt about it, Bennett’s been lucky. Bennett’s scored his four goals on 24 shots on goal for a 16.7 shooting percentage. His career average is (a very average) 10.1, and he’s last been in double-digits in 2018-19.

Really, those percentages aren’t even the most drastic. So far, the Panthers have a perfect 100% save percentage with Bennett on the ice at five-on-five (vs. an unlucky 85.5% with Calgary this season, and a career average of 90.6). On-ice shooting percentage, another marker of luck, is off the charts too (Bennett with Florida: 16.9%; career average: 7.3).

So, yeah, Bennett’s not going to be scoring at a pace of about 117 points over the long haul for the Panthers. That said, there are some other interesting trends to watch, and mysteries to solve as the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs approach.

Golden opportunities

Beyond “puck luck,” the most fortunate elements of Sam Bennett’s Panthers renaissance have been a) his linemates and b) his ice time.

So far during his Panthers tenure, Bennett’s spent the vast majority of his even-strength ice time with Jonathan Huberdeau and Anthony Duclair. Naturally, Huberdeau is the sort of foil who will goose his linemates numbers — at least offensively. But Duclair’s an interesting colleague as a former third-round pick whose stock dropped before he found what could be a very nurturing biosphere with Florida.

Beyond those bounces, Sam Bennett’s getting reps with the Panthers that he simply never received with the Flames.

Just look at the raw numbers. With the Flames, his career average of time on ice was 14:08 per game, and it was down to 13:28 per contest this season. Through nine games with the Panthers, Sam Bennett’s averaged 18:04 TOI per game, and logged more than 20 minutes in three of his last five games.

What happens come playoff time?

If there’s a lingering question, it is: what happens when the Panthers get healthier?

At the moment, Patric Hornqvist and Mason Marchment are day-to-day for the Panthers, while Carter Verhaeghe looks week-to-week.

With 35 points in 42 games, Verhaeghe has been a revelation for the Panthers, justifying flattering Jonathan Marchessault comparisons.

While Verhaeghe looms as the most formidable challenge to Bennett’s Panthers position, Hornqvist seems to score the type of goals Bennett’s been racking up with the Panthers:

Even with Marchment, he carries some Bennett parallels, at least the Flames version, in that Marchment hasn’t scored much, but carries promising underlying numbers.

So, once all hands are on deck, it remains to be seen where Bennett falls. Maybe Bennett maintains a commanding, top-six position with the Panthers (i.e. feasting alongside one or more of Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov), or maybe he falls somewhere lower in the lineup.

Panthers GM Bill Zito left things pretty open-ended regarding Bennett’s role right after trading for him, for one thing.

“He’s a guy who projects probably a little more on the wing than center and has had maybe a little more success there, but really can play across the spectrum in the lineup and up and down,” Zito said on April 13. “And we’ll just have to see how and where the coaches deploy him.”

Expecting Sam Bennett to match this early Panthers production would be unreasonable. But don’t blame Florida if they think they can get more out of him than the Flames did. After all, they’ve had a knack for unearthing some hidden gems lately.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.