After captaining his University of Michigan Wolverines at the end of his four-year NCAA career two seasons ago, defenceman Mac Bennett played his first year of professional hockey in 2014-15 with the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs.
The 79th overall selection in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft found it difficult to crack the lineup in the early part of the season, but a combination of injuries and NHL call-ups granted him a few opportunities to show what he brings to the organization.
Bennett, who had played in a maximum of 32 games in his previous two seasons, received playing time in 59 contests, with the volatile roster situation preventing stability in defence pairings. Needing to adjust to both the increased workload and the advanced pace of professional hockey, Bennett was paired most often with fellow-AHL-rookie Darren Dietz, and was able to contribute four goals and eight assists.
Bennett will return to the Habs' AHL affiliate in 2015-16, possibly in a top-four role, with added responsibilites and an aim to improve upon his rookie performance and take the next step in his professional development.
The votes for Bennett were relatively similar, with a few exceptions. Robert and Patrik were the only voters who ranked him outside the top 30, whereas Cara gave him a spot in her top 15. It's worth noting that Bennett (average rank 25) hardly edged out Brett Lernout (average rank 25.44) to nab the 25th spot on the list.
Top 25 Under 25 History
|2010 #21||2011 #17||2012 #17||2013 #24||2014 26th|
Bennett's presence in Hamilton last season, where he could be directly compared to several other defensive prospects, may have been the difference between narrowly missing the cut in 2014's Top 25 Under 25 and taking the final slot in this, his final year of eligibility for this project. He actually featured on a higher proportion of top-25 ballots a year ago; on 11 of 16 lists, versus 10 of 18 this time around.
The main facet keeping Mac Bennett in the prospect conversation is his speed. He often looks to jump up into the attack, and has the ability to mitigate the effects of his own mistakes by recovering into a defensive position quickly.
That speed is paired with good puck-moving ability that helps transition into in the offensive zone. His stick skills apply in the defensive zone as well, overcoming a relatively-slight build for a professional defenceman by separating the puck from his opponents, rather than vice versa.
Bennett's most important trait holding the interest of the Canadiens' personnel development staff may be his desire to learn and improve his game in any and all areas. In an interview on The Bulldogs Show during the season, Bennett stated that he had been putting in extra work in the video room with assistant coach Donald Dufresne, outlining the improvements to his game that will need to be made for him to excel at the professional level.
One area that needs no improvement is his discipline. In his 59 games last season he accrued a minuscule 10 penalty minutes, matching his total in 31 games the year before in Michigan. In a 32-game season the year before, he was in the penalty box for just four minutes.
While those penalty-minute tallies are impressive, even shadowing a player stride-for-stride or using his propensity for legally effecting a stick-check will at times be misinterpreted by an official as an infraction. The fact that this happens rarely in Bennett's case suggests a lack of engagement with opposing forwards in his own zone.
In fact, defensive zone coverage was the topic of those video room sessions with Dufresne. Bennett's defensive game in general was lacking as he went into his first season with the Bulldogs, and while he has improved in that area, he still requires instruction on how to effectively play within his own end.
His speed and puck-moving abilities should lend themselves to good offensive production, but Bennett has never really stood out in that area, either. He only reached the 20-point plateau once in his four-year university career, and his twelve points last season worked out to a production pace of one point every five games. Those aren't terrible numbers for a prospective defenceman, but they do nothing to separate him from other defenders in the organization.
Mac Bennett doesn't have the offensive flair that could cover up defensive deficiencies and make him a top-quality prospect. Nor does he possess the great defensive ability that can compensate for low offensive output.
At 24 years of age, with many aspects of his game in need of improvement, Bennett is a long shot to make the NHL, but his status as a jack-of-all-trades should see him have, at the very least, a successful professional career in lower leagues. His desire to improve his game by being open to criticism from his coaches, and displaying the ability to translate that knowledge into actual betterment of his hockey aptitude over the course of his first professional season, means that his NHL hopes are not dashed just yet.
For Bennett, hockey isn't the only viable career option. After completing his musicology degree in Michigan, he is now about two years of study away from realizing an alternate dream of becoming an audio engineer. He is also involved with menswear company State and Liberty Clothing Co., serving as Vice President of Marketing for the start-up that specializes in creating high-quality dress shirts for athletes.
Whether it involves helping a nascent company find its legs, mixing music in the studio, or playing hockey professionally,future promises to be an exciting one.