While sometimes NHL players who have enjoyed strong rookie seasons follow it up with sub-par second years, don’t count Jamie Benn
among that list.
The 21-year-old right winger has continued his development into a key offensive cog of the Dallas Stars and is currently riding a career-high six-game scoring streak, during which he’s totaled nine points (four goals, five assists).
Benn’s exceptional performance, despite bouncing between two different forward lines, moving from right wing to center and while logging second-unit power play time, has been a big factor in the club’s recent success that has them firmly atop the Pacific Division.
“Obviously, he’s getting rewarded for all the work he’s put in this year,” said part-time linemate Steve Ott
. “He’s such a versatile player - he’s got phenomenal, great hands that go along with underrated speed and his hockey smarts for a young guy are right at the top level of a veteran. It’s great to see him, at 21 years old doing this, because for a lot of years, he’s going to be a heck of a player.”
“He’s getting some points and scoring some goals and doing some good things on the power play, doing some good things on the penalty kill,” Stars coach Marc Crawford said. “His skating is so apparent and he’s such a powerful guy, that it’s nice for us to be able to have that ability to put him in different spots, because he helps us no matter where we put him.”
Through much of the Stars’ recent hot streak, which saw them open the 2011 calendar year with a 7-0-1 record until a 7-4 defeat in Calgary Friday, Benn has occupied the right wing on the second line alongside Mike Ribeiro
and Brenden Morrow
, or while also sliding down to the grittier third line next to Ott and Adam Burish
, sometimes playing wing, sometimes center. He’s flourished regardless.
“I’m kind of used to it now,” the 6-foot-2, 208-pound native of Victoria, BC said of the frequent line-juggling. “I think it’s just feeling more comfortable, and playing with Steve Ott
and Adam Burish
, I think it’s a good fit for me. We have a lot of chemistry and we just keep it simple. In the end, I’m still going to play my game, and play my game within the team game. You don’t change much and I feel comfortable on both lines.”
Clearly, having a player like Benn at his disposal, someone to plug in wherever he’s needed depending on the tone of the game, is a major benefit for Crawford.
“He’s so versatile - he can play the middle, he can play the wing,” noted third-year winger James Neal. “His speed’s definitely a factor in that, he’s so quick and so good on pucks, that he can play with anyone. That’s a great asset for him, and it’s great that he’s able to do that and it helps the team out.”
“I think it’s how deep our forward group is, and if Benner can play on the third line or sometimes second, that just shows the versatility he has,” added Ott. “He can play right wing, center, left, wherever else and he seems to be excelling wherever you put him. When a guy makes any line instantly better, you know how good of a player he is.”
During a rookie year that began with him somewhat surprisingly making the team out of training camp and which saw him blossom as the year went along, Benn ultimately compiled 22 goals and 41 points in 82 games. Then, with Dallas missing the playoffs, Benn finished last season by leading AHL Texas, the Stars’ top minor league affiliate based just outside Austin, to the Calder Cup Finals. He considers the experience, when he contributed 14 goals and 26 points in 24 playoff games, including a Game 7 overtime winner in the second round, a highly influential one in his maturation process.
“I think it helped me out a lot,” said Benn, the Stars’ fifth-round selection (129th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. “I got some more experience, I got to play some big minutes in key situations and whenever you get a chance to do that, I think it can only benefit you.”
The conventional thinking behind the sophomore jinx suggests that after a successful rookie year, the player has a tendency to perhaps let up a bit and expect things to come easier, and in fact, sometimes, it’s harder because opponents know who they are and are more apt to focus on stopping them.
To name just one recent example, look to Columbus goaltender Steve Mason, the 2009 Calder Trophy winner as Rookie of the Year, who struggled last season and still, in his third season, hasn’t regained his rookie form.
But even though Benn endured a few relatively dry patches earlier in the season, recording just six points (two goals, four assists) during a 16-game span from mid-October to late November and another stretch where he managed just one point (a goal) in nine December games, Benn has rebounded nicely.
“He’s doing great,” said Neal, who went through a somewhat up-and-down sophomore campaign last season. “(In your second year), you know what goes on, you know the lifestyle, you know the every day challenges in practices and games. You just try to not think too much and do the right things and stuff will work out for you - especially when the team is doing well, it helps everything.”
“I think some teams know who you are now,” Benn said of the tests faced in year two. “I’ve been in the league for a year, it’s just a lot more challenging. You got to be more consistent and I’m just trying to do that.”
So far so good. Overall, through 45 games, Benn ranked fifth on the squad with 33 points (13 goals, 20 assists), already surpassing his rookie-year total in assists with his 20th Friday night in Calgary. His average ice time of 16:32 marks a significant upgrade from the 14:42 he registered last year, with a hefty chunk of that coming from his increased role on penalty killing.
Benn’s spectacular goal in Edmonton Thursday, which undoubtedly ended up on highlight shows across North America, further displays how much room he still has for future progress.
“I think Jamie Benn
’s mindset is a little different than most,” said Ott. “He doesn’t get too high, he doesn’t get too low, he just stays even-keeled and has fun with the game and I think some of the young kids that put too much pressure on themselves are the ones that end up slumping. But Benner seems to just be having fun, enjoying the moment he’s having in the NHL and he’s really proving it out there.”