CALGARY — Sam Bennett may technically be an NHL rookie, but he already has big-game experience in the league.
Of the dozen games Bennett played for the Calgary Flames last spring, 11 of them were in the post-season. The 19-year-old had three goals and one assist in Calgary’s playoff run.
The Flames beat Vancouver in six games in the first round before bowing out to Anaheim in five games. Bennett had an assist in Calgary’s final game of the regular season and his NHL debut. His ice time ranged from nine minutes to over 18 minutes per game.
So Calgary’s highest draft pick ever at fourth overall in 2014 arrived for his “rookie’ season wanting to pick up where he left off.
“Being able to play in those games against Anaheim, who is a really big team, it showed me I had to get bigger and stronger in the off-season,” Bennett said Thursday. “This year, I feel a lot more confident.”
“I want to make an impact. I don’t want to be a guy that plays a couple of games and then sits out a couple of games. I want to be in the lineup every game.”
Bennett estimated he’d acquired seven to eight pounds of additional muscle on his six-foot-one frame, which puts him over the 180-pound threshold.
The NHL classifies a rookie as a player who appeared in less than 25 games in any preceding season, unless that player has already turned 26.
Bennett was among the team rookies reporting for medicals Thursday in Calgary before flying to Penticton, B.C.
The annual Young Stars Tournament there has a star attraction this year in Edmonton Oilers prospect Connor McDavid, who was this year’s No. 1 pick in the NHL draft. The Oilers and Flames rookies square off Saturday.
Bennett and McDavid have history as both teammates and opponents.
They were minor hockey teammates for seven years — five with the York-Simcoe Express and then two with the Toronto Marlboros. They also won gold for Canada at the world under-18 men’s hockey championship in 2013.
They work with different trainers in the off-season, but spent time together socially over the summer. Their parent’s homes are a 10-minute drive from each other in Newmarket, Ont.
Bennett and McDavid will inject new blood into the NHL’s Battle of Alberta which starts with a pre-season split-squad game Sept. 21. The first of five regular-season meetings is Oct. 17 in Calgary.
“Oh yeah, a little bit of friendly trash talking for sure,” Bennett said. “I’ve told him to keep his head up a couple of times. We’re still really good buddies off the ice.
“We’ve played against each other and with each other all growing up. To soon get the opportunity to play him at the highest possible level, it’ll be a really fun experience.”
Bennett missed parts of his first NHL training camp and was limited to three pre-season games last year because of a groin injury, followed by shoulder problems. He underwent shoulder surgery in October.
After weeks of rehabilitation he was assigned to his junior team, the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs. Bennett had 24 points in 11 games plus three assists in four playoff games before the Flames recalled him April 3.
He’s re-claimed No. 93 for 2015-’16 after wearing No. 63 last season. He’s worn the former number since he was a teenager.
“My dad got me into it because his favourite player was Doug Gilmour,” Bennett said. “I think that’s one of the reasons I started wearing it.”
Gilmour is general manager of the Frontenacs.
Bennett was also intrigued by the possibility of playing in next year’s World Cup of Hockey on Team North America, which will be comprised of Canadian and American players aged 23-and-under.
Players on that team could end up squaring off against their own countries in the international tournament next September.
“It’ll be different having Canadian guys playing a Canadian team and some American guys playing against a Team USA,” Bennett said. “It’ll definitely be a cool experience.”
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version reported that Bennett wore No. 79 last season.