“I’ve put on 15 pounds and I’m a lot stronger than when I first came here (University of Michigan),” says Canadiens prospect Mac Bennett.
Photograph by: Dario Ayala, The Gazette
MONTREAL — When Mac Bennett says he has worked to get bigger during his three years at the University of Michigan, he feels he has to qualify that statement.
“Obviously, I’m not much taller, maybe an inch,” the 5-foot-11 Bennett said. “But I’ve put on 15 pounds and I’m a lot stronger than when I first came here.”
Bennett, who was drafted by the Canadiens in the third round (78th overall) in 2009, is regarded as a small defenceman, but Michigan coach Red Berenson and former defence partner Greg Pateryn believe he can play at the National Hockey League level.
“He’s bigger than some of the small defencemen in the NHL,” said Berenson, a former Canadiens player and long-time coach at Michigan. “He’s not oversized, but he’s not undersized either. You can’t have six guys his size, but if you want a player who can move the puck out of your zone quickly, he’s the guy.
“When he first arrived here, he wasn’t in the lineup for every game,” Berenson added. “But he worked hard. He’s putting in extra hours watching video and spending time on the ice. He’s one of those kids who takes advantage of being able to play college hockey; he gets it.”
A Rhode Island native, Bennett played prep-school hockey at Hotchkiss and one season in the United States Hockey League before choosing Michigan over Boston College. Berenson has a connection with the Bennett family and said that helped him in recruiting Mac. Berenson played with Mac’s uncles, Curt Bennett and Harvey Bennett Jr., in St. Louis. Mac’s grandfather, Harvey Sr., was a goaltender with the Boston Bruins in 1944-45.
“I didn’t know Mac’s father, Jim, but I played with Curt and I played with Harvey and I coached him in St. Louis, and I’m sure that helped in his decision,” Berenson said.
“Absolutely,” Pateryn said when asked if the National Hockey League is in Bennett’s future. “The way he skates, his vision with the puck. He’s gotten a lot better with his playmaking decisions. He’s still young and he has time to develop.”
Pateryn, who was called up by the Canadiens last week, said Bennett is an “unbelievable” skater, which is a valuable asset in today’s NHL.
“He’s a great player, he can really fly out there,” Pateryn said. “There are few players I’ve seen who can skate faster with the puck than him. He’s gotten a lot stronger each year. Every year I see him, he’s looking bigger and that’s good for him because he’s a smaller guy. I got to play with him for two years. I have nothing but good things to say about the kid.”
Pateryn said they remain friends and talk on the phone once a week.
For his part, Bennett said Pateryn played a huge role in his development.
“He made things a lot easier for me,” Bennett said. “It takes a lot of pressure off when the guy next to you is a brick s---house.”
Pateryn spent four years at Michigan and earned a degree, but Bennett said he’s not looking any further than this weekend’s crucial Central Collegiate Hockey Association quarter-final series against ninth-ranked Western Michigan. The best-of-three series opens Friday in Kalamazoo.
“Our only chance of making the NCAA championships is to win the CCHA tournament,” said Bennett, who was part of the 16-team national tournament in each of his first two seasons.
As a freshman, Bennett helped Michigan to the NCAA final before the Wolverines lost in overtime to Minnesota-Duluth. Last spring, Michigan lost to Cornell in another overtime squeaker in the first round of the tournament.
The current season has been a disappointing one. Bennett is one of 11 Michigan players who have been drafted by NHL teams, but Berenson’s squad is a young one and has been hard-hit by injuries, including a sprained knee that kept Bennett on the sidelines for a month and a neck injury that cost New Jersey Devils defence prospect Jon Merrill the first half of the season.
“Our biggest problem is that we have two freshmen goaltenders and we couldn’t keep the puck out of our net,” Berenson said. “We’ve been scoring goals, but it took a while to sort out the defensive end.”
The good news is that Bennett and Merrill have made complete recoveries and Michigan is on a roll with a 7-2-1 record going into the CCHA tournament.
“We’ve won six in a row and we hope to keep it going,” Berenson said.
Bennett plans to be at the Canadiens’ development camp in June, and that might go a long way toward determining whether he becomes the latest in a line of players who have broken Berenson’s heart by leaving Michigan early or if he stays in school to complete his degree.
“I’m majoring in musicology,” said Bennett, who says he plays drums, guitar and a “little” piano.
“Piano was the first instrument I played and I gave it up after four months because I didn’t like it,” he added. “I’m regretting it now.”
Berenson said he hopes Bennett will return for his senior year. The coach has seen numerous players being lured to the NHL and said it’s not always for the better.
“The Canadiens pulled (Max) Pacioretty out after one year and he spent two years in the AHL,” Berenson said. “Mike Komisarek played two years here and he might have been better off if he stayed for another year or two. Komo had a man’s body, but he was still a kid.”
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