A year later: Sam Bennett says he ‘felt free’ after being traded to Panthers

Sam Bennett of the Florida Panthers skates onto the ice after being awarded the first star of the game after scoring the winning goal in overtime against the San Jose Sharks at the FLA Live Arena on January 29, 2022 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images) (Joel Auerbach, 2022 Joel Auerbach)

SUNRISE, Fla. – A lot has changed for Sam Bennett over the past 12 months.

It was just over one year ago when Bennett was acquired by the Florida Panthers in exchange for a second-round pick and prospect Emil Heineman.

He had spent the previous five seasons with the Calgary Flames, the team that selected Bennett fourth overall at the 2014 NHL Draft.

Despite high expectations and a promising start, Bennett struggled to reach his full potential with the Flames.

The pressure that comes with being a top pick can be extremely tough on a young athlete, especially in a market as hockey crazed as Calgary.

Bennett logged 18 goals and 36 points during his rookie season. Those numbers remained his career highs when he was eventually traded to the Panthers.

After several years of moving up and down the lineup, answering questions about underachieving and, more recently, dealing with trade rumors, Bennett could put all that behind him and focus on a fresh start with Florida.

“Obviously my career hasn’t gone the way I expected, and I think I have a lot more to prove and I have a lot more to give,” Bennett said following the trade. “I’m thankful for the opportunity, and I love playing in Calgary and loved all that, but now I’ve got a new fresh start and a fresh opportunity, and I couldn’t be more excited.”

Fast forward a year and boy have things changed for the better.

Bennett was an instant spark for the Panthers during the end of the 2019-20 season, racking up 15 points in 10 games while mostly centering a line with Jonathan Huberdeau on his left.

Questions about whether the late season success was just a flash in the pan were quickly answered when the current season began.

Bennett hit the ground running by scoring a hat trick in Florida’s second game, a 5-1 home win over the New York Islanders, and he hasn’t looked back.

The 25-year-old is having the best season of his career, and it’s really not even close.

Through 66 games, Bennett has notched 27 goals and 19 assists, for a total of 46 points, all career highs.

Florida Panthers center Sam Bennett celebrates after scoring against Washington Capitals goaltender Ilya Samsonov during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

It’s a remarkable turnaround for a young player who had been through some tough days in Calgary while trying to grow as a man and reach his ultimate potential.

Who would’ve thought he’d have to leave Canada and move to South Florida to unlock that potential?

“As soon as I got here, I felt like, I don’t want say a new player, but I felt I guess like my old, younger self,” Bennett said after Thursday’s morning skate. “I felt free, and I could play the way I always knew I could play, with confidence and not afraid to make a mistake.

“When I play like that, that’s when I’m playing my best hockey.”

Bennett and the Panthers appear to be a match made in heaven.

So much so that the man falling in love with South Florida was offered the longest contract of his professional career to stick around.

Florida signed Bennett to a four-year contract worth $17.7 million during the offseason.

It signified the end of a tumultuous time for Bennett, who could now put his time in Calgary behind him and focus on a future full of promise and opportunity with the Panthers.

Twelve months ago, this all may have seemed like a fairy tale ending for Bennett.

Now, after helping Florida become one of the best teams and most explosive offenses the NHL has seen in years, Bennett can dream even bigger.

“It’s been a crazy year,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of being here with this team. How we’re feeling right now, and how tight this group is, we’re looking to make a long playoff run.”

About the Author:

David Dwork joined the WPLG Local 10 News team in August 2019. Born and raised in Miami-Dade County, David has covered South Florida sports since 2007.