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Sam Bennett: The ‘Swiss Army Knife’ of the Florida Panthers

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Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry (35) defends a shot on the goal by Florida Panthers center Sam Bennett, left, during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

SUNRISE — When the Florida Panthers overhauled their roster during the offseason, Sam Bennett was one of the players most affected by the changes.

Bennett had just come off career highs in goals (28) and points (49) when superstar linemate Jonathan Huberdeau was shipped off to Calgary for Matthew Tkachuk and Paul Maurice replaced Andrew Brunette as head coach to install a more structured style of play.

It did not take a long time for him to buy in to the system.

”He is just one of those throwback guys,” Maurice said. ”He says about 10 words a year and he works his ass off every shift.”

Add in the loss of a linemate who scored 30 goals last season — Anthony Duclair sustained a torn Achilles during the summer — and Bennett came into a completely new situation.

”It was definitely a different game,” Bennett said.

“With Duclair and Huberdeau, it was all speed; that was our whole game. Now it’s more in-zone plays and more battles, grinding it out. It’s just a different game for sure.”

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Bennett has picked up the pieces and adjusted to a more grit-and-grind style of play while still capturing that speed game off the rush to become a crucial part of Maurice’s Panthers.

“Sam had the idea of that compete,” Maurice said.

“He almost had to pull back a little bit to let the game happen instead of going 100 percent all the time every shift.”

Bennett was forced to find his place in Maurice’s system while the team was going through some rough patches.

At times, the team has had to rely on him to be their No. 1 center with captain Sasha Barkov dealing with several injuries and a lengthy illness throughout the season.

”Getting used to the new system was a little tricky at first,” Bennett said.

”Just playing bigger minutes against other teams’ top lines has just made me more aware of how defensively responsible you have to be and I think the coaching staff has done a good job of helping me transition into more of a defensive role.”

By the time Barkov got back, he found a groove with former Calgary teammate Matthew Tkachuk as well as Carter Verhaeghe.

With this combo, Florida had two top-quality lines to work with and a style of play which worked for Bennett.

“There’s the perfect hybrid because he is very fast and he grinds. You don’t see that a lot,” Maurice said.

”Usually, the speed guys are a little more slight — they’re jet fighters — and they are real good one way, not so good coming back the other way.

”It is unusual to see a man that fast who doesn’t slow down to get into a heavy area. He has kind of been that one consistent player that played his ass off right from the first shifts because that is who he is.”

Bennett’s scoring touch has not been the same as it was last year — his 14 goals in 54 games are off the pace of his career-high of 28 — but he has been generating chances at the same clip and has tied his career high in assists with 21.

“He is a complete player. He has a lot of elements to his game so if he wants to play a certain way, he can do it and he can adjust to different players, so it says a lot about him,” Verhaeghe said.

”He comes in every night and he competes. Every night, you know what you are going to get from him. He is making a big hit and making a big play. He is a competitor.”

Bennett has shouldered the brunt of the defensive responsibilities on that line for some time while Tkachuk and Verhaeghe soared to torrid offensive paces.

But a commitment to the defensive end of the ice opened up the offensive ice for him.

He has goals in three of his last four games with five points in that span.

“I feel pretty good and I have some confidence right now,” Bennett said. ”I am having fun playing with my linemates and we are building some chemistry so I feel pretty good.”

PANTHERS ON DECK

FLORIDA PANTHERS AT MINNESOTA WILD

  • When: Monday, 8 p.m.
  • Where: Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
  • TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
  • Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
  • Last season: Florida won 2-0
  • This season (Pantherso 1-0): Panthers 5, Wild 3 (Jan. 21)
  • All-time regular season series: Minnesota leads 18-9-2, 1 tie
  • Up Next for the Panthers: Tuesday at St. Louis Blues, 8 p.m.

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