Sidney Crosby skated with newly acquired right winger Phil Kessel at the Pittsburgh Penguins training camp over the weekend, forming a combination expected to dominate the NHL in the upcoming season, but another roster fixture paired with new member of the team stuck out during the drills at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township.
Beau Bennett, a fragile, underperforming forward, gelled with Nick Bonino, the probable third line center acquired via trade in the offseason.
Bennett becomes a restricted free agent at the end of the season, potentially making 2015–16 the last chance for the Gardena, California native to prove a serviceable NHL player. While head coach Mike Johnston told reporters Bennett, a natural right winger, remains in the mix for a left wing spot, the 2010 20th overall pick looked comfortable on the right side of Bonino.
“We play similar styles,” Bennett said to reporters on Sunday. “He’s thinking out there. He’s not pushing the pace too much, and we kind of play the same way. I definitely think we could read of each other and be successful.”
A new injury seemingly every season as far back as 2011–12 as a sophomore at the University of Denver led to a delay in development for Bennett and missing 116 of 212 games since entering the league in 2012–13. Last season, Bennett finished with only 12 points in 49 games, but a summer of rest and preparation seems to be paying off in the early goings.
“David Perron and Beau Bennett have had very good camps so far,” Johnston said to reporters. “Those guys have impressed me with how they’ve taken to their conditioning and sort of built themselves up over the summer.”
Despite the low point totals, Bennett actually took a step in the right direction last season finishing with a PDO, or the Penguins shooting percentage with Bennett on the ice added to the Penguins save percentage with Bennett on the ice, improving slightly to 98.2 from 96.3. Any value under 100 expressed in PDO means the opposing team scored at a higher rate with a specific player on the ice. However, Bennett saw a significant jump in defensive zone starts at 49.7 percent in 2014–15 from 40.1 percent the year before. A slightly higher PDO with a jump a defensive zone starts shows Bennett trended upward defensively.
Additionally, Bennett stayed fairly consistent with Corsi and Fenwick ratings above 50 percent, meaning the Penguins possessed the puck at a higher rate than the opposition with Bennett on the ice. Bennett staying healthy and finding some consistency on the third line with Bonino on the third line gives the Penguins potential for three solid scoring lines, but health obviously remains a big question mark.
“I feel the best I’ve ever felt to be honest,” Bennett said to reporters. “Just having a full summer of just being healthy. It was a very positive, productive summer, and I’m just looking forward to being durable and making it through the whole season and help contribute.”
The real tests start tonight as the Penguins take on the Columbus Blue Jackets to open the preseason. Though Johnston expects to use several players, including Bennett, on the right and left sides and in different roles, perhaps experimenting with Bennett needs to end and instead let the California kid naturally excel in a depth role on the right wing. Early signs of chemistry with Bonino support the idea. Bennett still needs to earn playing time, but a higher level of comfortability hopefully leads to higher levels of production.
Photo credit: NHLI/Getty Images/Jared Silber