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'Real man' Benn ready to lead Stars to playoffs

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

Dallas Stars president Jim Lites and general manager Jim Nill couldn't believe what they were watching during the summer, because two years ago something as small as forward Jamie Benn leading a group of men through offseason workouts seemed so unlikely, so out of character.

"He's like the pied piper now," Lites said. "You'd never think a veteran like Ales Hemsky is going to be following anybody around, but there he is, Jamie Benn leading him around like a little kid. There are probably a dozen guys who have that capability in the League."

Benn is best known for winning the Art Ross Trophy last season with 87 points, including 10 in his final three games, to edge New York Islanders captain John Tavares by one point. Lites, Nill and others know Benn differently; for who he is and what he means to the Stars.

It's in large part because of Benn's maturation into a leader that Nill, Lites and coach Lindy Ruff believe the Stars are poised to take the next step and become a legitimate contender in the Western Conference this season.

"He has that twinkle in his eye," Nill said. "He wants to play and he wants to win. It's his time. He knows it. He knows where our team is at, the step we need to make, and he wants to be a part of it. While he was a man before, he's become a real man now."

It wasn't long ago that Benn was the shy, young player who looked down at the floor when he first met Nill and Ruff in the offseason after the 2012-13 season.

"Not real confident about where he was at in his career," Ruff said in describing his first impression of Benn when the two met before the 2013-14 season.

And now?

"He's really grown these past couple of years to being the guy who can come in and speak up," Ruff said. "I think he's comfortable."

So comfortable, in fact, that Benn not only looks Nill and Ruff in the eye when he talks to them, he invites himself into their offices and openly discusses what's on his mind, bringing his ideas to the table for consideration.

"To see the development of Jamie, it's inspiring to watch," Nill said. "He's instigating the conversation now. He's grabbing it."

This version of Benn, this leader, is why Nill and Ruff named him captain on Sept. 19, 2013.

Benn had the pedigree to be a top player in the League. He scored 193 points in 263 games during his first four NHL seasons, his points-per-game average at 0.80 or better in his second, third and fourth seasons.

Nill and Ruff arrived in Dallas after the 2012-13 season and wanted to see more of Benn, more of what he could do. They were curious about how the responsibilities of being captain would impact him, his game, and, ultimately, the Stars.

Benn had 34 goals and 79 points in 81 games in his first season as captain, helping the Stars make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He had 35 goals and 87 points in 82 games last season, when the Stars missed the playoffs.

What happened last season won't be acceptable anymore. That's why Nill, Ruff and Lites were so thrilled to see Benn's demeanor during the summer.

"The light went on," Lites said. "He doesn't only want to be good and lead, he wants to win. Jamie is there now."

Benn admitted to picturing in his head the time he met Nill, not looking him in the eye. He said it was his personality then to be shy, almost introverted. He said becoming a leader required him to come out of his comfort zone.

"It was really time to man up and be the leader of this group, really take that next step," Benn said. "I think I'm that guy now. I used to be the one asking all the questions, but now I'm answering them. I'm totally fine with that."

Getting there was a process. It helped Benn to be around center Tyler Seguin.

Seguin is known for loving the spotlight, for demanding it and wanting more of it. Seguin and Benn forged an immediate bond when Seguin came to Dallas before the 2013-14 season. It has turned into a strong friendship.

"He's one of the most outgoing guys and loves the attention that he gets, so I'll give him a little bit of credit for getting me out of my comfort zone," Benn said. "It definitely rubs off on you."

However, it's not as if Benn emulates Seguin, who noted that Benn neither seeks nor craves attention.

"A good example is if you look at social media, you barely even see a picture of him on there," Seguin said. "Him and how he compares to [Sidney Crosby]; he has that leadership, that mentality of being so humble it makes him a better person."

As Lites and Nill noticed during the summer, Benn's teammates have jumped on board to follow him. For proof, Seguin pointed to the final three games of last season, all meaningless for the Stars in terms of playoff positioning because their race was already over.

"We all wanted to win the Art Ross for him," Seguin said. "There is no guy better than Jamie to win it. He's selfless. We're happy he won it."

Benn said he pushed in those last three games not to catch Tavares for the Art Ross Trophy (although that was a rewarding byproduct), but to show his teammates that they can't stop playing just because the math says they're out of the playoff race.

"You still have a job to do," Benn said. "I wanted to set a good example. I wanted to go out there and still play hard. You're not only playing for yourself, but for your organization and for the city of Dallas. You have to treat that with respect."

Respect isn't an issue for Benn. He's earned it. The goal now is to win, but that's precisely why Benn doesn't think he enters this season with all eyes on him even though there is curiosity from the general public about what he has in store for an encore.

"If we can get off to a good start and really get rolling with the group of guys we have, people will be more focused on the Dallas Stars and not the individuals on our team," Benn said.

They'll still be focused on Benn from inside the organization. It's become hard to turn away from him, and certainly hard to miss him.

It wasn't always that way.

"He realizes it's his team now and he's going to put it on his back anyway he can," Nill said. "He's going to make the other guys be accountable. That's what good leaders do. He realizes where he's supposed to be and what he's supposed to do. He's doing it."

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