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by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

There might not be a spot available for him, but rookie left winger Jamie Benn is making a strong push anyway in his bid to win a job on the Dallas Stars.

After scoring two goals, including the game-winner on a third period breakaway, Saturday night in a 4-2 pre-season victory in St. Louis, Benn has impressed his coach and teammates alike throughout training camp and the first week of pre-season.

Benn skated on a line with fellow rookie Tom Wandell and winger Steve Ott against the Blues, while veteran center Mike Modano has also teamed up with him on a regular basis throughout camp.

“I just got a lucky break on a breakaway there and got an empty-netter,” the humble, soft-spoken Benn said of his performance Saturday night. “I thought our team played really well and we got a pretty good win. It’s been going pretty good, I’m having lots of fun and learning lots of new stuff.”

If he can continue to produce and perform like he belongs in the NHL, the 20-year-old Benn just might get a shot to stick around, rather than head down to the Stars new top minor league affiliate, the AHL Texas Stars.

“He’s played really well throughout this entire pre-season,” Stars coach Marc Crawford said of Benn. “I thought that line (against St. Louis) of Tommy Wandell and Steve Ott was terrific. Both Jamie and Wandell were strong on the puck and they made good decisions on the puck. I thought that Steve did a great job of keeping those guys engaged and giving them a veteran presence on the line. It was a tough game, it was a hard game, a very physical game and both those guys responded real well in that area.”

Crawford indicated that he has been quite pleased with the progress displayed by Benn so far this fall.

“Jamie’s going to be a good player and we’re going to continue to give him lots of opportunity here in the pre-season to keep demonstrating the talents that he’s got,” Crawford said. “I think that through these first three exhibition games we’ve had, he’s played two and he’s played extremely well in both of them. We’re looking for him to continue putting his best foot forward.”

Entering his first season of pro hockey, Benn is coming off a highly-decorated junior career. Last season, especially, he really took his game to a new level, piling up 46 goals and 82 points in 56 games for Kelowna of the WHL, and after helping Team Canada win the gold medal in the World Junior Championships, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound native of Victoria, BC led Kelowna to the WHL title. Proving his ability to produce in clutch situations, Benn notched 13 goals and 33 points in 19 playoff games, then led the Memorial Cup tournament with five goals and nine points in just four contests as Kelowna lost in the Final of the Canadian junior championship.

Following a summer that included visiting Dallas for a low-key gathering of prospects in July, there are some elements to the professional game that Benn has to adapt to, but so far, he’s been doing an admirable job.

“Just the speed and the strength of the guys,” Benn said, identifying the biggest difference to the pro game. “The guys are pretty big here, but you get used to it more and more every day, so it’s a work in progress.”

His veteran linemates have been impressed with the way he’s handled the transition so far.

“I think the number one thing about the NHL for guys from junior is speed,” noted Ott. “The guys are bigger, stronger, faster - the speed of the game and the quickness of how plays develop and the situations that unfold, if it’s defensive or offensive, it just happens that much quicker. That’s the adjustment he’s got to make, but he’s a smart kid and he’s picking it up very quick.. I can just see him in the next few games continuing to get better and better.”

“He has a couple of camps under his belt and he’s getting to that age where you can tell he’s kind of caught up to the trend and the learning curve and is getting adjusted to the speed and the style and the strength of the game at this level,” added Modano, who turned pro way back in 1989-90 when he finished second in Calder Trophy voting for Rookie of the Year. “It’s great for him, and I’ve always said the upside’s really strong for him. He’s starting to feel his niche and where he belongs.”

While it appears to be a consensus that Benn has acquitted himself well so far, the real question remains - is there a roster spot available for him to win? Or is he destined to head to the AHL club, which is based in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park?

While veteran winger Jere Lehtinen has been sidelined with a groin/hip issue all week, Benn has occupied his usual spot on that line with Ott and Modano and meshed nicely. But when Lehtinen returns, where would Benn fit in?

“We’ve got all this week,” Crawford said, noting that the Stars play four more exhibition games, including on three straight days from Tuesday through Thursday. “He’s getting a great opportunity and taking advantage of it right now, of playing with some good people in the absence of Jere Lehtinen. He’s got good versatility, he can play both sides of the wing, and we can put him in a situation that’s been with good offensive players, with good offensive minutes. He’s gotten a chance to play the power play, he’s gotten a chance to play in scoring situations. That’s great when you get the opportunity to put people in areas where they can demonstrate their skills. The other part of that is, once you get that opportunity, you’ve got to take advantage of it and he’s definitely doing that.” 

After skating alongside him for the better part of a week, both Modano and Ott believe Benn has earned a chance to stay with the big club.

“I don’t know, I think the sooner you get him in here the better,” Modano said. “There’s no use waiting. If he’s going to eventually be here, you might as well play him and do it, but those are management’s decisions - Joe and Marc and those guys - but the quicker you get him acclimated to this game, I think the years down the road will be better.”

“You look at it, obviously there’s a lot of guys battling for spots and battling for positions and it usually goes to whoever’s playing the best hockey, and so far, the kid’s playing very well,” said Ott, who registered an assist on Benn’s second goal Saturday. “That’s obviously up to the coaches to see where he fits in, especially in the development process of his career.”

Benn himself remarked that he hasn’t been looking over the roster list to see if there could be an opening. Whether or not he stays in Dallas is not something he’s worrying about, since it is beyond his control.

“I’m not really doing any of the numbers, I’m just going out there and playing hard,” Benn said. “That’s all I can do. As long as I work hard and keep having fun, I might get a chance.” 

Crawford indicated that Benn’s status would be determined by team management, primarily General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk, based on what is best for both Benn and the Stars. Would it be better for him to stay in the NHL and maybe not play as much but have an accelerated education or would Benn benefit more by going to the AHL and logging lots of minutes in all kinds of crucial situations?

“We’re going to do what’s right,” Crawford said. “Jamie is certainly making a tremendous case for himself right now and that’s your job as a player, keep putting forth efforts that are that good and show yourself in a tremendous light and he’s doing that. There’s no doubt he’s going to play, everybody knows that, it’s just, ‘What’s best for him?’ And the guys with the overall picture are the guys that are going to make that decision.”

Regardless of where he starts the season, there’s a good chance that Benn will find his way to Dallas at some point this year.

“I think every game or every practice, you see him get a little bit more confident and especially of late, you see him getting a lot more comfortable on the ice,” Ott said. “He’s got tremendous hands and a great skillset to be an NHL player. That’s what he’s got to keep building on, keep getting better every single game, and that’s what he’s been doing.”

* * *

As for Lehtinen, who has been sidelined since camp began, he seems to be improving and skated on Sunday.

“Lehts skated again today and commented that it was good, so we’ll try to ramp that up,” Crawford reported. “I think the plan is to ramp him up as we go along here during the week, but as you know, Jere knows his body better than anyone.”

The Stars added another player to the injury list Saturday night when center Warren Peters sustained what appeared to be a fractured orbital bone during a second period fight with former Star B.J. Crombeen. 

“Warren got hurt last night in the fight - I don’t know exactly what it is, a fractured orbital bone or something like that,” Crawford said. “I think they’re telling us it will be probably take him at least a few weeks to be back and ready to play. I don’t know yet the severity or the degree.”

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