Larry Phan

Iowa forward Kris Bennett and Utah defenseman Miles Gendron both go for the puck during a hockey match between the Iowa Heartlanders and the Utah Grizzlies at Xtream Arena in Coralville on Feb. 9, 2022. The Grizzlies beat the Heartlanders, 5-4, in overtime.

Point/Counterpoint | Who is the Heartlanders’ MVP?

Two Daily Iowan staffers debate if Kris Bennett or Ryan Kuffner is the Iowa Heartlanders’ most valuable player in 2021-22.

April 3, 2022

Kris Bennett

Although they’ll most likely miss the playoffs, the Iowa Heartlanders have had a successful debut season in the ECHL. The first-year organization has proven itself in the league, taking down top teams like the Toledo Walleye and Fort Wayne Komets.

Much of that success has happened because of first-year ECHL player Kris Bennett.

The prospect out of Ontario, Canada, has been on a tear this ECHL season. Bennett has gone back and forth from the Heartlanders to AHL affiliate Iowa Wild in Des Moines, but still leads the team with 34 goals in just 41 games. He is also third on the Heartlanders’ roster with 31 assists.

The Heartlanders’ first captain in franchise history has now won back-to-back ECHL Rookie of the Month awards in February and March — the first player to do so since Jason Bast for Idaho in the 2014-15 season.

The rookie leads the league with 34 goals. Bennett is also leading all rookies in the ECHL with 65 total points. Bennett even notched one goal in his 12-game stint with the Iowa Wild.

A lot of the Heartlanders’ success has been linked to great team hockey — executing power plays, stiff defense, and crisp offensive possessions. But the standout player for this season has to be their first captain, Kris Bennett.

Ryan Kuffner

I know forward Kris Bennett is dubbed the Iowa Heartlanders’ “cheat code” by the team, but forward Ryan Kuffner is its most valuable player.

Unlike Bennett, who’s tallied more goals than assists, Kuffner knows how to find his teammates in scoring position. The former Detroit Red Wing is up to 40 assists on his first ECHL season — tied for seventh in the league despite competing in 32 out of 63 Heartlanders’ games.

When you get over an assist per game, you’re helping your teammates, and that’s showing up in the statistics for the Princeton University graduate. Kuffner’s plus-7 rating is one of the best on the Heartlanders, while Bennett holds a minus-2 rating.

With that, it’s no surprise Kuffner registered at least one point for 16 straight contests at one point during the season.

The left-handed shooter from Ottawa, Ontario, also knows how to score timely goals — and two come straight to my mind.

His first of 12 goals during the 2021-22 campaign came 25 seconds into the first game in Heartlanders history on Oct. 22, 2021. I knew right when the Heartlanders got into the Kansas City Mavericks’ zone before the score that something magical was occurring. It turns out Kuffner was the wizard in that moment, and I recognized he was a valuable asset.

He had another spectacular moment facing the Kalamazoo Wings on March 12. After the Heartlanders surrendered two goals and blew a 3-1 lead in the third period, Kuffner thwarted the comeback by recording the game-winning goal with less than five minutes left.

Kuffner and Bennett are both great leaders for the Heartlanders, and Bennett is the frontrunner for ECHL Rookie of the Year. Yet when it comes down to Iowa’s most valuable player, the evidence suggests Kuffner is the answer.

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