Michigan senior defenseman Mac Bennett was a third round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in the 2009 NHL Draft. The Canadiens have been patient with Bennett's development at Michigan, but with Bennett graduating this year, the Canadiens will have to make a decision on whether to sign the undersized defenseman to a contract, or let him become a free agent.
With that in mind, I took a closer look at Bennett's game on November 29th, when his Michigan Wolverines faced off against Ohio State in each team's first ever Big Ten Hockey Conference game. The Wolverines ended up winning the game 4-3 in an overtime thriller.
First and foremost, it's important to note what an important role Bennett plays on Michigan's team. With Jacob Trouba moving on to the NHL at the end of last season, along with some departures to graduation, Michigan was left very thin on defense behind Bennett. It's basically Bennett, a couple talented, but not-quite-there-yet freshmen, and a collection of guys that are 6th or 7th defensemen in more ideal circumstances. As a result, Bennett ends up logging a lot of ice time. He plays on both the top power play and penalty kill units for the Wolverines. My very unofficial count had him at 25 shifts even strength, four on the power play, and two shorthanded. As a rough estimate, that puts him in the range of about 25:00 minutes of ice time.
Michigan especially leaned on him in the early minutes of the game to try and avoid giving up an early goal/get an early lead, and late in a tight game. It's also worth noting that because the Wolverines don't really have a solid #2 defenseman, Bennett is playing with a variety of defensive partners.
The official line chart lists Bennett at 6'0" 189 lbs., but he really doesn't look that big at all. If he makes it as a successful NHLer, it's probably going to be in spite of his size. He works hard, but is almost always at a physical disadvantage when battling along the boards. When defending the front of his own net, rather than tying up his man, he prefers to stay free, which allows him to cover more ground, while trying to knock away any passes with his stick.
Bennett is an excellent one-on-one defender. He played his gaps perfectly. One of Bennett's two shot blocks on the game came on an Ohio State rush up the ice. Bennett gave him just enough room to think about a shot, but when the player wound up, Bennett stepped up and easily deflected the shot into the netting. He's also very quick with his feet, and move laterally really well, which allows him to take space away from a player with the puck very quickly.
Bennett is an offensive-minded defenseman, but has put up relatively modest scoring numbers on the season. Coming into Friday's game, Bennett had yet to score a goal and only had three assists on the year.
He had a fantastic scoring chance in the first period when he jumped up from the point to pick up a loose puck in the slot, but was stopped by the goalie. Otherwise, his only other shot attempt came in the first period, when he had a shot from the point blocked during a power play. Part of that seems to be that strategically, Michigan just doesn't shoot the puck from the blue line very much. Only 12 of the 93 total shots Michigan attempted on Friday came from defensemen on the perimeter. That's both a very high number of shot attempts, and a low percentage from defensemen, which shows that Michigan was taking the first shot available quite often, and were choosing to run their power play from the halfboards/behind the net, rather than working the puck back to the defense for a big slap shot from the point.
That doesn't mean Bennett isn't contributing on offense, however. With the ice time that he logs, he can't afford to take every opportunity to jump into the rush, but when he did pick his spots, he was very effective at jumping into the play and creating a 3-on-2 for a quality scoring chance, and never ended up caught out of position defensively.
Bennett is also an excellent passer, highlighted by the biggest play of the game. In overtime, while skating the puck out of his own zone, he found teammate Andrew Copp streaking across the opposing blue line. Bennett skated into position to give himself a clear passing lane and hit Copp perfectly in stride to send Copp in on a breakaway that would turn into the game-winning goal.
All that brings us back to the beginning of the article, and the questions of whether Montreal should fish or cut bait with Bennett, and what is his long-term potential as a professional. Barring some seriously extenuating circumstances, I'd be pretty surprised if Montreal didn't try to sign Bennett after the season. While it's becoming more rare for serious prospects drafted that highly to play all four years of college, I think Montreal was happy to keep Bennett at Michigan where he's seeing a ton of ice time and playing such an important leadership role for the Wolverines. He's certainly not the type of player you want to see walk to another organization for free.
Guessing whether he'll ever be an NHL regular is a more difficult question to answer. He'll almost certainly need a year or two in the minor leagues. He's a player that is going to have to rely more on his poise and smarts than physical gifts to make it in the NHL, and it's going to take some time to develop that against professionals. His size and strength likely makes him a bit of a liability in his own end, but with the NHL shifting towards more of a possession-based game, Bennett's skating and passing ability could be a huge asset in the right situation. The safest bet for Bennett in the long-term is likely an AHL/NHL tweener that sees some action in the big league, but never quite breaks through to being an NHL regular.