Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of prospect profiles leading into the NHL draft Friday and Saturday.
Sam Bennett, who sat atop the NHL Central Scouting rankings all year, embraced the spotlight. He loved having eyes on him. He relished showing his scoring talent, compete level and all-around game on a nightly basis. Best of all, he drew rave reviews.
One rough day far away from the rink diminished his efforts.
Bennett infamously failed to do even one overhand pull-up at the NHL Scouting Combine. Questions arose about the 18-year-old’s strength level and put doubt in the minds of folks who pegged him as ready for the pros.
“It was just the wrong time to get zero,” Bennett said. “I guess that’s how people are labeling me right now. There’s nothing I can really do about it, except for work hard in the gym and get better.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger in the end. To experience this at a young age maybe helps me get through something when I’m older.”
Bennett has tried to take a philosophical and lighthearted view of the situation. He knows he still has a chance to be drafted first overall June 27 in Philadelphia. For every person who says his pull-up failure was a bad omen, another observer says his on-ice attributes are infinitely more important.
“This is what the whole Combine’s about,” said Dan Marr, the director of Central Scouting. “The team that’s going to get Sam Bennett knows what work lies ahead, and they’ll be able to put him on the proper path for development.”
Marr thinks the team that drafts first should be the team that picks Bennett. The Kingston center was No. 1 in the midterm rankings and held off challenges from Aaron Ekblad and Sam Reinhart to retain the top spot in the final evaluations.
“He’s kind of a complete package when you talk about the skating with the speed, skill, hockey sense, the scoring ability,” Marr said. “He’s got the compete. He’s got that will and that edge to his game where he doesn’t really want to be denied on the play.
“You can put him on the ice in any situation, whether it’s to defend a lead near the end of the game or if you need a goal. He’ll go out there and do what’s needed.”
All the top prospects boast special talents. What sets Bennett apart is his tenacity. He plays with an edge and has been compared to Hall of Famer Doug Gilmour, a dogged competitor who is Bennett’s general manager.
Bennett’s aggressiveness has led to 205 penalty minutes in 112 games in the Ontario Hockey League, and he also served a five-game suspension for high-sticking. Reinhart, by contrast, was named Most Gentlemanly Player in the Western Hockey League.
“I think I compete as hard if not harder than anyone else,” Bennett said. “That is a big part of my game. I guess some of the other top players don’t have that as much, and that’s definitely one of my strongest attributes.
“That’s just the way I’ve always played hockey. I’ve never played any way different, so I love playing like that and I’ll always play like that.”
The Sabres, of course, have made “compete level” the most overused phrase in their vocabulary. It’s because they lack talented players with nonstop motors.
“I had a good meeting with them, probably a half-hour-long meeting with them, and I think it went really well,” Bennett said of Buffalo.
Bennett put himself on the radar his first season with the Kingston Frontenacs with 18 goals and 40 points in 60 games, earning a second-team nod on the OHL All-Rookie Team.
The start showed Bennett what he could accomplish, and he followed with 36 goals and 91 points in 57 games last season.
“At the end of last year I really started thinking that coming up next year is my draft year,” Bennett said. “I thought I had a pretty good first year, and I just thought if I just kept working hard and kept trying to get better that my dream could come true.”
He leaned on Gilmour for tips on and off the ice. He watched tapes of Chicago captain Jonathan Toews to help build a two-way game.
Now Bennett will go to the draft in Philadelphia and listen for a team to call his name. The one that does will be looking at his potential, not his Combine letdown.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if I can do a pull-up,” Bennett said. “It’s my performance on the ice.”
Next: Sam Reinhart.