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Benn continuing accelerated progress in rookie year

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Much has already been documented about how impressive Jamie Benn has been for the Dallas Stars as a 20-year-old rookie in 2009-10, but the fact that he has continually raised his level of play as the season has progressed is especially noteworthy.

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Many rookies who have success early on usually hit the wall and plateau at some point, but while Benn has had his share of ups and downs this year, he’s just gotten better and better lately. Perhaps the two-week Olympic break helped rejuvenate him, as Benn has been enjoying a sustained hot streak recently. 

Following the Stars’ 3-0 loss in San Jose Thursday night, Benn has compiled 10 goals in his last 21 games, including a stretch of six points (four goals, two assists) in his last nine outings. Overall on the year, Benn’s 35 total points rank sixth among NHL freshmen, while his 19 goals sit fourth.

Coach Marc Crawford, who moved Benn from the wing to center back in January after Mike Ribeiro was injured, has been very impressed with his young charge, citing his superior skating skills as a key to his success since just before the break.

“He’s got legs, and how does the song go? ‘He knows who to use them,’” said Crawford, invoking legendary Texas band ZZ Top to describe Benn. “That’s what it is right now, it’s who’s got energy. This time of year it’s the guys that can really skate that stand out. So who do you notice for us? You notice Robidas and Daley on the back end, you notice Benn with his speed - it is the great skaters that show themselves.”

“I think it’s just hard work and bearing down on your chances,” the soft-spoken Benn said of his performance lately. “I got a new line and I think we’re clicking right now.”

Even though Ribeiro has been back in the lineup for a good month and a half, Benn has remained at center and his quick learning curve has helped provide Dallas with another dangerous line combination. Lining up primarily alongside second-year winger James Neal and wily veteran Jere Lehtinen over the last 10 games or so, Benn looks like he’s been playing the middle for years.

“Each game you get more comfortable with it,” the 6-foot-2, 207-pound native of Victoria, BC. “Playing center ice, there’s more room to skate, you handle the puck more. I think that’s the biggest thing. I’m feeling more comfortable, so it’s been going well.”

Along the way, Benn has earned tons of respect from club management for his enthusiasm at taking on the new challenge and for justifying their faith in his ability to adapt swiftly.

“I think he’s done a tremendous job,” Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk said. “We had the injury to Ribeiro, we looked for a bigger body down the middle to match up with some of the bigger centermen that we have in the Western Conference and we tried it internally. It was an experiment and I think everybody was impressed with the way that Jamie fit right in there. He’s looked like he had played the position before even though he never had in his life, so it’s been a real positive experience. And he’s just a real smart player. I’m sure if you put him on defense, he’d succeed too - he’s just that type of player.”

“I love his attitude,” Crawford added. “Joe was saying he was talking to him the other day and asked how he likes center, and he says he loves it. That’s a great attitude. It’s a subtle thing, and sure, at 20 years old, you’re playing in the National Hockey League, you should love everything, but at the same time, to take that responsibility and embrace it, that’s the beauty of what we’re seeing right now.”

Crawford cited Benn’s high hockey IQ as a major reason he has been able to make the switch so seamlessly.

“It’s the intelligence factor that he’s got,” Crawford said. “Centers have to be thinkers, they have to read the play. Wingers, it’s coming at them or going away from them. So that’s why we looked at using him at center.”

Never mind the difficulty of learning an entirely new position at such an elite level, just the fact that Benn, who was a steal as the Stars’ fifth-round selection (129th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, was able to make the jump directly from Canadian major junior last season to the NHL this year without needing any development time in the minors is remarkable enough.

But Benn’s accelerated maturation process this season has been crucial to the Stars’ fortunes this season. It’s hard to imagine where they’d be without his 19 goals, which rank fourth on the squad and represent the second-highest rookie total for the club since it arrived from Minnesota in 1993, trailing just the 24 Neal notched last year, with eight games to play.

“You talk to scouts that follow all the NHL games and a lot of them comment about how they’ve been real impressed with a 20-year-old playing with the impact that he has,” Nieuwendyk said. “He really earned a spot on this team, even though we probably had him pencilled in for (the AHL Texas Stars) at training camp - it’s a credit to him.”

“There’s not too many 20-year-olds that are jumping in, making impacts like that,” added gritty forward Steve Ott. “For him to come out of nowhere, he had a great junior career and stuff, but usually it takes a year or two, and for him to step up like he has and just grab it right from training camp, it’s good things to come and he’s going to be a huge player for the rest of the way.”

With the Stars facing a monumental task to make the playoffs this season, trailing the eighth and final post-season slot by nine points with just eight games to go, management made sure they maintained the option of having Benn experience high-stakes playoff hockey somewhere when they listed him on the AHL Stars’ 20-man post-season roster.

The thought process behind that is if Dallas does miss the NHL playoffs, Benn can report to the AHL and continue playing, logging a lot of ice time in critical situations, and that the experience will benefit him even more next year. 

“We’ll make that decision at the end of the year,” Nieuwendyk said of the possibility Benn might play his first minor league contest. “We wanted to (include Benn on the roster) to give us the option. We’ll see if that opportunity is there for him and then we’ll make the right call. It’s worked in the past for a number of players, like Fistric and Sawada last year, they had long runs (with AHL Manitoba, who lost in the Calder Cup Finals), and we’ll decide that at the end of the season.”

Either way, he’s just one year removed from winning a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2009 World Junior Championship and leading Kelowna to the WHL championship while topping both his league playoffs and the Memorial Cup tournament in scoring.

Benn, who is averaging 14:50 of ice time per game, has already progressed much further than anyone associated with the Stars ever thought he would and he just keeps taking additional steps forward. 

“He’s going to get nothing but better,” Crawford said. “He’s got great offensive instincts, a great shot, and we’re not using him in the situations that he’ll be used in in the future. He’s going to get stronger, he’s going to get more mature and he’s just going to continue to get better.”

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