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Benn thriving following difficult position switch

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Rookie Jamie Benn has been playing outstanding hockey lately for the Dallas Stars. 

But that’s not such a news flash. After all, he’s been a productive rookie since making the team out of training camp and he’s been contributing all year.

What makes his recent success all the more noteworthy is that he’s been doing it while learning a new position on the fly and he’s actually been even better.

Punctuated by his first career two-goal game in Sunday’s 4-0 victory over Phoenix, the 20-year-old first-year pro has compiled four goals and five points in his last six games, pushing his season totals to 13 goals and 27 points. While his goal total ranks tied for fifth on the Stars, both those figures land him in the top six for NHL rookies this year.

Jamie Benn is such a patient player and when you put him in the middle, he’s got great hands, he’s got a great shot, great release,” said gritty forward Steve Ott, who’d been playing on Benn’s wing until forced to undergo an emergency appendectomy Tuesday. “He’s been working on his game. He’s been very strong in (face-offs), he’s been very strong in the D-zone. For himself, I think that’s asking a lot of a 20-year-old, but he’s jumping, he’s improving every single game. It’s actually fun to watch, to see the talent this kid’s got.”

When offensive center Mike Ribeiro sustained a long-term throat injury in early January and then fellow rookie Tom Wandell suffering a torn ACL in his knee a couple of weeks later, the Stars were thin at the center position and coach Marc Crawford opted to switch Benn from his usual spot on the wing to the middle to help fill the void.

Well, not only has Benn filled in, but with Ribeiro back in the lineup as of Tuesday night, the club has been so impressed with his performance that Benn has remained at center for now and will probably stay there. 

“I’m just feeling more comfortable out there,” said the soft-spoken Benn, the Stars’ fifth-round selection (129th overall) in the 2007 Entry Draft. “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 and feeling good.”

“He’s been very good for us there, and thank God he has, with the injuries to the two centermen that log so many minutes,” said Crawford. “It’s gotten to the point where he’s assimilated well enough that we’re actually thinking of keeping him there and that will be a real positive thing for him. Ribeiro comes back, it again allows us to be a deep team and when you have people that control the game from the center ice position.”

While it may not seem like such a major transition to go from winger to center, the centermen have a lot more responsibility, particularly in the defensive zone, where many young, just-out-of-junior players tend to have trouble. But Benn, who never played center before at any level, has shown proficiency inside his own blue line belying a veteran and has learned his new tasks swiftly.

“It’s taken a lot of work and I’m getting lots of help from (assistant coach) Stu Barnes, and just watching Richie and Mo and those guys,” said the 6-foot-2, 205-pound native of Victoria, BC. “I’m getting used to it and feeling good.”

“Jamie’s best asset out there is that he’s really a quick study and he’s figured out play in his own zone,” Crawford said. “I think it’s the intelligence factor that he’s got. 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, and again, Jamie’s been a winger his whole life. And you can see why, he’s got such a great shot and he does drive those seams and he gets open. I think his ability to transform and do those things that you need to do, it’s a lot more work being a center than being a winger.”

In addition to fulfiilling a need for a skilled center, Benn developed some outstanding chemistry on a line with captain Brenden Morrow and the feisty Ott - at least until Tuesday’s game when veteran Jere Lehtinen replaced Ott. With the trio firing on all cylinders, the Stars regained the luxury of deploying two difficult lines for the opposition to deal with.

“I think we’re just keeping it simple and doing the right things and it’s paying off,” said Benn, who has averaged 15:57 of ice time over the last seven contests, a significant increase from his season figure of 14:55. 

“Offensively, he’s playing on a very straightforward line with Morrow and Ott, and they’ve provided us with energy, they’ve provided us with physical play, they’ve been able to play against top lines, they’ve been no fun to play against,” Crawford said before Ott was sidelined. “About the only negative is he’s not your prototypical centerman who distributes the puck a la Ribeiro or Richards or even for that manner Modano, but he is very, very good in the defensive zone and his mindset is perfect. So for a guy that’s never played it a little bit, it’s amazing the transformation that we’ve seen and real kudos for him to be open enough and determined enough to make it a successful venture.”

And remember, this is a guy who was playing junior hockey in Canada last season. Yes, he enjoyed immense success at that level, leading his Kelowna squad to the WHL championship with a league-leading 33 points (13 goals, 20 assists) in 19 playoff games, before advancing to the Memorial Cup Final, a tournament Benn led in scoring with five goals and nine points in just four games. But even so, being able to step right into the NHL at age 20 and contribute the way he has this season is pretty remarkable.

Most players need some time to adjust - to a much quicker pace, much stronger and nastier opponents, better goaltenders, etc. - by apprenticing in the minor leagues. A scan down the Stars’ roster reveals that just franchise icon Mike Modano and current leading scorer Brad Richards were able to avoid spending time in the AHL. Everyone else, from offensive stars like Mike Ribeiro and Loui Eriksson to captain Brenden Morrow to top goaltender Marty Turco, just to name a few, required at least a little tutoring in the minors.

“I don’t think enough can be said about the transition from junior to the National Hockey League in one jump,” marveled Crawford. “Not many people can do that, and not very many people in the history of the game do it, so he’s in that elite group of players that are able to skip a step. When I was in grammar school, kids would accelerate in school and those were brilliant kids and I think that’s what Jamie is. He’s a really bright, perceptive kid, and then you add onto that, as if the job isn’t complicated enough, we’re throwing him a whole new position.”
“There’s not too many 20-year-olds - there are a few of them in the league - that are jumping in, making impacts like that,” added Ott, who himself needed 107 games in the AHL before fully establishing himself as an NHL regular. “For him to come out of nowhere, he had a great junior career, but usually it takes a year or two. Look at how James Neal did it (one year in the AHL) and a lot of guys in here, they’re super players but it takes them a little bit, 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.”

That’s the best thing about watching Benn’s breakout performance this year - it’s clear he’s just scratching the surface of his enormous potential and there is much more on the way.

“He’s going to get nothing but better,” Crawford noted. “He’s got great offensive instincts, a great shot that you saw (Sunday night against Phoenix) and I think he’s closing in on really good numbers for a rookie scorer. He’s got an outside chance at getting 20 goals - you do that, boy, that’s quite an accomplishment at a young age.  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.”

And that’s very good news for Stars fans.

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