Holding steady on our top 25 Under 25 list is Michigan blueliner Mac Bennett. Bennett, now 21 years old, was a 3rd round pick out of Hotchkiss High School in Connecticut back in 2009, drafted for his puck moving and skating abilities. He deferred his collegiate career for a year in 2009-10, opting to step up to the USHL to help make the adjustment to a higher level of play. His career has been marked by steady improvement, with no notable signs of weakness but no notable jumps in performance, either. As he gets ready for his junior collegiate season, the time for Bennett to make a big jump into becoming a top defenseman at the NCAA level is now.
Kevin Van Steendelaar did Bennett's profile last year, and covered a lot of the biographical detail about Bennett. He hopes to become a third generation professional player in his family, and he's certainly on his way to accomplishing that feat. The big question about Bennett is if he's just an intriguing package of skills or if he's a bonafide prospect. After the jump, we'll discuss Bennett's abilities and what he needs to do to get ahead of the curve.
Here's how the panel viewed Bennett in 2012. Opinion is really starting to get mixed on the young man:
|Player||Berkshire||Cooper||Peter||Boyle||van Steendelaar||Dahan||Ive||Boucher||La Rose||Rice|
He didn't crack two panelists top 25 but cracked three panelists top 15. Players of Bennett's skillset can definitely be divisive. Brian La Rose of Habsworld, who ranked him the highest, had this to say:
The fact that he as a sophomore stepped up and played as big of a role in a strong college program as he did is very impressive. His defensive game needs some more work to avoid being labelled as a one-dimensional (offensive) blueliner but given his improvements so far, I expect him to take another leap forward in his development. In terms of his skating, his abilities are right up there with the best in the Habs' class.
Skating. Skating. Skating. Mac Bennett, to put it simply, is a magnificent skating defenseman. It's the most basic of skills to possess, but man, it can make a world of difference for a player's ability to adapt to a higher level of play. Frontwards, backwards, making quick cuts and stops, Bennett is near the top of the heap among NCAA defensemen in this regard.
His puckhandling and passing skills aren't as high up there as his skating ability, but they are strong as well. When Bennett is on the ice, the pace of the game can be increased significantly. He makes the game easier for defensive partners that can concentrate on their positioning, giving them an easy outlet option.
While his strengths seem to indicate a strong offensive game, it's been a little slow in coming for Bennett. This was the first year he cracked a point every two games since being drafted, and he credited an opportunity that opened up when star defenseman Jon Merrill was mysteriously sidelined to start the year (his first hockey was at the World Juniors). Indeed, by November 5, Bennett had 9 points in just 10 games. When Merrill returned, the offense dried up. Unfortunately for Bennett's statistics, Merrill is returning to Michigan next year.
As a bonus, he improved not only in his offensive game, but he took fewer penalties per game with more ice time last year as well.
Bennett is a small defenseman at 5'11", 180 lbs, and he's considered a very below average player physically. That's not to say he can't make it in the pros, but he'll have to prove himself quite adept at puckmoving and passing to do so. Right now, it appears he'll never be looked at as a guy to play the tough minutes as a professional. Of course, that can all change with time... Stephane Robidas and Mark Streit certainly never looked like world beaters in their younger days, either.
Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of Bennett's profile is the negative reports about his hockey sense. Corey Pronman sees it as his biggest obstacle to making it to the NHL. It's why he's labelled as an offensive blueliner without putting up great point totals. It's why he's underwhelming in his own zone so far. That being said, plenty of players have made it as depth blueliners with his skill set and lack of hockey sense... a guy like Chris Campoli is an example of this kind of player.
Bennett's next year is a big one for me personally in evaluating his future. He must step up to become one of the CCHA's top defensemen this year for me to seriously consider him as more than an intriguing package of skills. To become a genuine defensive prospect Habs fans can bank on, I hope to see him either push his game offensively to near the top of the college circuit (unlikely given the presence of Merrill on the team), or take a significant step on the defensive side of the puck to compensate. I assume at this point that Bennett will play out his entire collegiate career before turning professional, so he's two years away from playing in a Habs uniform in the preseason. While there is that added year for him to improve, the time is now for the Habs to look at him as a serious prospect going forward.
|#18:||#17: Mac Bennett||#16: Dalton Thrower|