Young Penguins forward Bennett will be asked to produce more in Year 2
Beau Bennett was chilling on a couch in the lounge adjacent to the Penguins' locker room — kids from Southern California don't sit, they chill — after a training camp practice, which prompted a smile from Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato.
While watching Bennett chat on his cell phone with his feet propped on the couch, Granato's smile turned into a laugh.
“How can you not like him?” Granato said. “Look at him. Everyone likes him.”
What isn't to like? Bennett was selected in the first round of the 2010 draft and never has planted a seed of doubt that the wrong choice was made.
Three years later, his time has arrived. The Penguins think he can become a star.
Bennett's skill always has been evident, his talent for hockey first groomed on the outdoor roller-hockey rinks in Los Angeles. Bennett didn't play organized ice hockey until he was 9, but with hands like his, it was only a matter of time.
“When I learned how to stop on ice,” Bennett said, “I was allowed to start playing ice hockey.”
He wasn't stopped since.
Bennett showed off his skill set during his rookie season, producing 14 points in 26 games last season. He possesses some of the smoothest hands on a team filled with high-skilled players. His passing ability is his greatest attribute, but Bennett has displayed a sniper's shot and plenty of other skills that delight those who see him play every day.
“He's got all the skill he needs,” Granato said. “Top-six skill.”
But there is more to Bennett's game.
The Penguins noticed last season that Bennett is strong despite his skinny appearance. Winning one-on-one battles in the corners, once considered a weakness of his, has become a strength.
“When we first got him, we thought we were getting a real skilled guy,” Granato said. “But we've gotten more than that. He has worked so hard on strength and conditioning.”
Granato said Bennett never has been told what to do since arriving in Pittsburgh. Rather, the 21-year-old always is asking questions of the coaching staff, trying to get better every day.
“He's put in the work,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “He's a good hockey player.”
Crosby would know. The two worked out together in Los Angeles this summer.
“That was huge for Beau,” Granato said. “To see how Sid works and how professional he is, that rubbed off on Beau.”
Bennett will see considerable time on the second line with center Evgeni Malkin and right wing James Neal, perhaps starting Oct. 3 in the opener against New Jersey.
Such an arrangement can be intimidating for a young player. Malkin and Neal are notorious for yapping at one another when things are going well on a given night. Does Bennett have the proper temperament to play with them?
“I think so,” he said. “You know, I feel like the best lines are the ones that do talk things out. If things aren't going well, you shouldn't be quiet. Geno and Neal obviously have that trust with one another, and I'm trying to fit in as well as possible. And besides, you don't develop chemistry in a couple of weeks. It will take a while.”
Neal and Malkin have been complimentary of Bennett since last season, when he was given a cameo on their line. All of the Penguins are impressed with the youngster.
“He just does everything so well,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Just the way he sees the ice, the way he passes. Lot of skill.”
Granato thinks Bennett is perfect with Malkin and Neal.
“He thinks the game the way Geno and Neal think the game,” Granato said. “He's the kind of guy they want to play with.”
The Penguins' system doesn't have hotshot forward prospects. Bennett is it. He represents a bridge between the Crosby/Malkin era and the one that will follow him. And he's OK with that.
Bennett doesn't feel pressure because he's now one of the big guns on one of the league's highest-profile teams. His teammates and coaches don't worry about him.
“He can do it all,” Granato said. “Right wing, left wing, any line, either power-play unit. He might be a good penalty killer someday, too, but he's got enough on his plate right now.”
Bennett embraces his responsibilities. And he's far too cool to feel intimidated.
“I'm never going to force the puck to Geno and Neal,” he said. “My natural tendency is to pass first, so of course I'm always going to be looking for them. But I think a good line should have three guys who can score. So I'm ready for the challenge.”
Notes: Forward Zach Sill and Harry Zolnierczyk and defenseman Brian Dumoulin were re-assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL on Thursday. Zolnierczyk must clear waivers by noon Friday before reporting. The Penguins' roster is at 29 players . … Management, coaches and players are scheduled to leave Friday for weekend team bonding activities at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. The activity will focus more on mental drills than physical ones.