In 2008-09, the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders had the most poised offensive defenseman in the league in one Matt Donovan, who should have been the USHL's Defenseman of the Year in this humble McKeen's correspondent's opinion. Fellow RoughRider blueliner Paul Phillips also developed a high level of puck poise over the course of 2008-09, but both Donovan and Phillips have since moved on to the NCAA D1 ranks with Denver University. However, the RoughRiders need not fear, because the team has Mac Bennett in 2009-10. Bennett has already impressed by displaying a level of puck poise rarely seen by defensemen in their rookie USHL season, even if his 1 goal and 3 assists in 8 games prior to playing for Team USA at the 2009 World Junior A Challenge weren't on pace to match those of his RoughRider predecessors Donovan and Phillips. However, the Montreal Canadiens prospect's future looks every bit as bright, if not more so, than the New York Islanders' Donovan or the Chicago Blackhawks' Phillips.
McKeen's correspondent Kevin Wey was able to talk to Mac Bennett prior to the WJAC and discussed his selection to Team USA, his time so far in the USHL, his selection by the Canadiens in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, his time at Montreal's development camp, his commitment to the University of Michigan, and a couple of NHL defensemen he looks up to who are at different points in their careers.
McKeen's: I'll focus first on some of the good news for you lately, you were named to play for Team USA at the World Junior A Challenge, which they had a nice announcement about before the game tonight. Tell me how it was that you learned you'd been named to the team and what your reaction was.
Bennett: I walked in when we had practice, it was actually last Monday I think, and my coach is coaching the team, obviously, (Mark Carlson). He said, "Congratulations. You're going to Summerside." I was pumped.
McKeen's: What are your expectations for the tournament?
Bennett: Honestly, I don't know what to expect. We'll be thrown together with a bunch of great guys, a bunch of skilled guys, but I don't know how we'll match up to the other teams there. What I do know is that we have a great coach behind the bench and if there's anybody that can motivate those players, it's Mr. Carlson.
McKeen's: Coach Carlson definitely has a track record of success. We're just about at the 10-game mark for the USHL regular season, your first and only. What are your initial impressions of the league and how does it compare to what you expected of it and to what you played in prep school?
Bennett: It's obviously a little bit of a jump coming from prep school, with stronger, bigger, faster guys. But, it's exactly what I expected. Everyone can play. I've found that the biggest difference is that all the teams have a lot more depth, as opposed to maybe one or two lines at prep school. All four lines can play.
McKeen's:Patrick Mullane told me almost that same thing last year. The biggest news for you in your career, so far, is your selection by the Montreal Canadiens, with the draft being in Montreal making it even that bit more special. Not too long after that, though, you went to their development camp. What all does the Montreal Canadiens' camp entail both on and off the ice?
Bennett: It's basically just a big, long week of a skill session. We'd be on the ice for an hour and 15 minutes and you'd do nothing but skating, there'd be no pucks. It wasn't like a bag skate, it was more technique and slowing everything down. Then, the other hour and a half, you'd work on shooting drills or flow drills, or something like that. Then, off the ice, they'd have sessions for dealing with the media, how you should eat, how you should prepare before a game, that sort of thing.
McKeen's: What were some of the skill tips that you picked up at the developmental camp that you think have had or will have the biggest impact in your game heading forward?
Bennett: I think the biggest thing that I've got to figure out is that all of my decisions have to get made faster. As you go up the ladder, time and space gets cut down. So, being able to think of where the pucks going to go before you get there makes a crucial difference.
McKeen's: In one of the Canadiens' press releases regarding that developmental camp, it talked about shooting and skating techniques. What were some of things that you learned you weren't doing quite right or that you could have been doing even better, those little small things?
Bennett: There were a few things with the skating. When my leg comes back in, it's kind of ready to push off again, and I'm supposed to bring it in straight and then push out. With the shooting, we worked on quick releases and stuff like that.
McKeen's: That's a thing that a lot of hockey players have to work at, because with that pushing off motion and it's very easy to build the glutes in such a way that you end up standing like this (I go from my normal stance of nearly standing like Fred Flintstone to having my feet almost completely pointing out like Fred Flintstone).
Bennett: Yeah (chuckles)
McKeen's: Like I do. You touched upon this, dealing with the media. So, what are some of the tips that the Canadiens gave you guys for dealing with us rascally media types?
Bennett: (Chuckles) Yeah, they just said to always be positive, always try to put yourself and the team in a good light. Stuff as small as if you're talking to somebody, make sure you're standing up, body language. Stuff like that. Very, very simple stuff.
McKeen's: In a city like Montreal, where the spotlight is as intense as anywhere?
Bennett: Oh my gosh.
McKeen's: It's definitely important.
Bennett: It's insane. I've never experienced anything like it, and I don't know if I ever will any other place.
Bennett: Just being drafted and it being in Montreal, I can't even imagine what it was like for Louis. I know for me, it was hectic. I went down to the floor, shook everybody's hands at the table, and then kind of went off to the side and just got swamped by media guys and then going to take pictures. Then, meeting up with my family after that, it was a very, very memorable day.
McKeen's: There were 40 prospects, if I remember right, that the Canadiens invited to the camp. So, who were some of your fellow Canadiens prospects who stood out the most to you and why?
Bennett: At development camp or rookie camp?
McKeen's: Both, if you'd like to combine those.
Bennett: I mean, obviously Louis Leblanc, he's very, very skilled. He's a very solid player. Yannick Weber, who got brought up because [Andrei] Markov was hurt. Those two guys were the ones that I really, really liked, and really enjoyed watching play.
McKeen's: I was able to catch Weber in action a couple of times with Hamilton last year (pauses), he does not hesitate to shoot and boy does he have a hard shot.
Bennett: Oh my God. He can shoot the puck. He can really, really shoot the puck.
McKeen's: There's no two ways around that. You were also able to skate with Max Pacioretty, and he came out of the USHL. What were your impressions of Pacioretty?
Bennett: Believe it or not, I was roommates with him at rookie camp and at development camp. He's a really great kid. It's great to see that he kind of took the same path that I'm currently on, going to prep school, coming here, and then going to Michigan. But, he's awesome. He's another guy who can shoot the puck.
McKeen's: No doubt about that. Last year, you were limited to 15 games due to a knee injury. How did you suffer that, what was the nature of it, and how long were you out for? It looks like you're doing okay with it now.
Bennett: It's 100 percent now. It was just a thing where I needed a little bit of rest and rehab on. I was breaking the puck out of our zone and I was skating into the neutral zone and I gave a pass to my winger, who was on the wall, and I had a guy coming at me. So, I kind of jumped to the side to try and avoid him, but he clipped me and I spun around and that was it, and I was out for nine games. In the prep school season, that's a lot of games.
McKeen's: Yeah, about a third. Obviously, as a third-round pick, you have some things going for you as a player. So, what would you say are your strengths?
Bennett: I'd say my skating is probably my top strength. But, to play at the next level, I have to get better at skating, like everything else, which includes shooting, defensive zone coverage, stuff like that.
McKeen's: I've noticed watching you at the Battle of Iowa, the Fall Classic, and a couple regular season games that your presence with the puck is pretty good, which is something the RoughRiders have had in the recent pass with Matt Donovan, and Paul Phillips developed it last year, too, and now they have you. At what point did you develop that poise with the puck? Was it something you always kind of had or was it something that you developed?
Bennett: Honestly, I couldn't tell you. I have some poise with the puck, but I still feel like I'm settling into this league, so I'm not really quite playing where I want to play yet. It's definitely getting there. But, as time goes on, and as more and more games are played, I'll find my stride a little bit and be able to have the kind of poise that I need to have.
McKeen's: Well, world watch out when that happens then, because I feel you're already doing pretty well. What do you think are some of things that are important in having that level of confidence and calm with the puck under pressure?
Bennett: I think the biggest thing that I have to learn to do is just trust my skating. Whether it be on a one-on-one, being able to trust my skating, keeping that gap close between me and the forward, or trusting it for breaking the puck out of the zone.
McKeen's: You're committed to the University of Michigan, but you're also a fairly developed hockey player, and I've seen guys like Trevor Lewis, who was scheduled to go to Michigan, John Carlson, John Moore, and others, decide to go the major junior route, and you were drafted by Gatineau in the 2008 QMJHL Draft. With that, after one of the longest question setups ever, would you consider going the major junior route if that's what the Canadiens wanted?
Bennett: We'd actually talked about that. There was some talk about me going to play major junior this year, but I just decided that it wasn't for me. I feel the college route would be a better fit.
McKeen's: Perfect transition to my next question, although I state it differently, why do you think college hockey is the right choice for you?
Bennett: It gives time for their players to develop, and obviously you'd be playing with bigger and stronger guys that you would be playing in junior. The schedule isn't quite as long, but it's very intense. To be at a place like Michigan, where they have had success with players like [Mike]Cammalleri or Pacioretty, it'll be a good fit for me.
McKeen's: With college guys and the practice-heavy nature of the schedule, it definitely does buy time for a player to develop both physically and on the ice, but also off the ice with academics.
McKeen's: It's nice to have positive choices, be it major juniors or college, no matter what. On another track, who are some players that you liked growing up or have looked up to and then also some players who you'd like to equate to today?
Bennett: Growing up, Mathieu Schneider. We were family friends. My dad actually coached him when he was in Rhode Island. He was my idol growing up. I wanted to be him. He's old now, but he's still able to play. To be able to keep himself in the shape that he's in, it's amazing. I would like to equate myself to a Mike Green type of defenseman now, but, again, there's a reason he's in the NHL. He's the best defenseman in the NHL, offensively.
McKeen's: Yeah, I think I remember him having an eight or nine-game goal-scoring streak, which is almost crazy for a defenseman.