The Pittsburgh Penguins are going to be a more difficult team to beat next season when Beau Bennett enjoys a breakout campaign as an important top-six forward.
The former first-round pick made his NHL debut last season and showed a lot of promise with 17 points (three goals, 14 assists) in 26 games.
Now it's time for the California native to take on a bigger role in the team's offense.
The first step in Bennett becoming a better player is receiving more ice time. Head coach Dan Bylsma gave the 21-year-old forward just 12:18 of ice time per game during the regular season, a number that decreased to 11:05 in the playoffs.
The offseason departures of veteran wingers Brenden Morrow, Matt Cooke and Jarome Iginla, all of whom got a chance to play on the team's second line alongside 40-goal scorer James Neal and former Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin, should open the door for Bennett to play a top-six role and receive 15-to-20 minutes of ice time per game.
This is a role that would give Bennett the quality of teammates and ice time needed to have a breakout season.
Bylsma talked about his young forward's future earlier this summer, via Penguins.com:
Beau has played on the left side a lot, so he’s comfortable there. He actually did a really good job in the beginning of [last year] proving he could play on the left side.
Skill-wise, skill set-wise, ability to play with high-end players, read the play, his hockey sense and also the ability to make plays to and from those [top-six players]. I think he’s shown that, he’s grown into that.
Over the course of a full season, you'll see [Bennett] able to play with those types of players, whether it is a power-play situation or whether it is with [Sidney] Crosby or Malkin or on a line with Malkin and Neal. I think he's got that ability.
Bennett is an ideal winger for Malkin's line, because his size and willingness to go hard to the net would open up space for the superstar center. As someone who plays a power forward type of game, Bennett would compliment Malkin and Neal by bringing more toughness and defensive skill to the second line.
His first career playoff goal in Round 1 against the New York Islanders was a good example of the connection that Bennett and Malkin could form as linemates.
Bennett's powerful and accurate shot was on display here, and this is the kind of skill that could make him a consistent point producer next season as a second-line left winger.
When Neal was acquired by the Penguins during the 2010-11 season, his production skyrocketed alongside Malkin, and he enjoyed a breakout year with a career high 40 goals in 2011-12.
There's no reason Bennett shouldn't see a dramatic increase in his goals and shots per game if he plays with Malkin for a full season. Scoring 40 goals like Neal isn't a realistic expectation for 2013-14, but Bennett is talented enough to tally 20-25 goals in a top-six role at this stage of his career.
Another reason Bennett will break out next year will be his increased role on the power play.
His strength, veteran-like poise and impressive puck-handling skills allow him to make plays and take shots from the half wall, which isn't an easy role on the power play. He's also able to play the point when the Penguins have the extra man.
Pittsburgh had the No. 1-ranked power play last season, and as a highly skilled power forward, the addition of Bennett to this unit should make it even more difficult for opposing teams to shut down.
The part of Bennett's game that didn't get enough attention last year was his defensive skills. He's an intelligent player in his own end and will cover for defensemen (such as Kris Letang) when they join the rush. While he doesn't appear to have enormous strength, Bennett is fully capable of playing a physical game and winning puck battles along the boards and in the corners.
The 21-year-old is a player who Bylsma will be able to trust in late-game situations because he isn't a defensive liability.
If he receives a top-six role for the entire year, Bennett will have a breakout 2013-14 campaign and emerge as a key player in the Penguins' journey toward the Stanley Cup Final.
All the talent is there, he just needs more ice time to develop and earn valuable experience.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL columnist at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, the 2012 NHL playoffs and the 2013 NHL draft.