The players at the Dallas Stars development camp were just getting through lunch Monday when there was a ripple of excitement. In short order, many of the draft picks and prospects attending the camp at the team's practice facility were peering through the windows in the lunch room overlooking the ice surface, focusing on one figure among a handful working out on the ice; Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn.
Benn, along with his brother, Jordie, now with the Montreal Canadiens, and forward Mattias Janmark were among a handful of players working on a variety of drills after those involved in the Stars development camp were done with their on-ice sessions.
It was a brief, surprise visit from the Dallas captain who, like everyone connected with the team, is trying to put behind him a disastrous 2016-17 campaign that saw the team miss the playoffs after winning the Central Division title and advance to the second round of the playoffs a year earlier.
Benn, the NHL's leading scorer in 2014-15 and a finalist for the Hart Trophy as league MVP the following season, saw his point totals drop from 89 in 2015-16 to 69 last season and the team fell out of contention early, wracked by injury and poor defense and goaltending. Benn also finished third in Hart voting in 15-16 and was a finalist for the Ted Lindsay award as the MVP as voted on by the players.
But when we caught up with the 27-year-old Benn after Monday's impromptu workout, he seemed enthused about the myriad off-season changes including the hiring of former Dallas head coach Ken Hitchcock, the acquisitions of netminder Ben Bishop and defenseman Marc Methot and recent signing of free agents Martin Hanzal and Alexander Radulov, moves that have dramatically altered the team's outlook for the coming season.
Burnside: What was this summer like, was it different from what you've been doing in the past?
BENN: I decided to change it up a little bit this summer and spend some time away from Dallas and closer to the ocean, so I moved out to Santa Monica and found a great place to live and train out there.
Burnside: Do you surf?
BENN: I don't but I want to try.
Burnside: What's the fine print in the contract, should I ask GM Jim Nill?
BENN: (Offering a slight chuckle) I don't know.
Burnside: You said you wanted to change it up this off-season. When you think about last year, what do you think about?
BENN: It was a disappointing year as a group. Probably more disappointing given the fact that we had such a great year the year before and we wanted to build off that. And we really did the exact opposite. There were some good points in the year. I thought our young players played fantastic pretty much all year. They did a great job so that was probably a good highlight for us. But you've got to play as a group and as a team to win in this league and you need everyone. We just really couldn't put it together last year."
Burnside: What was that like for you on a personal level, you shoulder a tremendous burden as captain and you've evolved into one of the best players in the NHL, what was it like for you personally to have that kind of step backward?
BENN: It was a new one for me. I'm slowly learning new things every year being the captain of this team. I've been around here for a long time but you go through these ups and downs and your highs and lows, it's really how you deal with it and how you come out of it that will make you a better person, a better player and a better team."
Burnside: Did you talk to anybody about what this was like?
BENN: I think not only just this summer but throughout the year there's a lot of great alumni players that are hanging around the rink and for me it's obviously great that I can go to these guys and talk to them. Stu Barnes (recently hired by Hitchcock as an assistant coach) was one of them. He wasn't around much last year but you'd see him the odd time but he was one person that I could talk to and he would kind of give me the knowledge of his experiences and then Brenden Morrow as well, Marty Turco. Those are great guys that I can lean on when the team's going through a tough time.
Burnside: What did you learn about yourself going through this process? When you're decompressing do you think, oh, I think I learned this or I would do this differently now having been through it?
BENN: Yeah there are definitely things that after it's all said and done and you kind of look back and maybe you could have done some things differently. If those situations come up again this year maybe you can handle it a bit differently or be well aware of it before it comes about. There's definitely things that I learned as a person and a captain."
Burnside: When you first heard that Ken Hitchcock was coming what did you think? Did you know much of him before?
BENN: He was kind of our video coach (with Team Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics) and he knew a lot about all the players over there (before Sochi) so he was involved. So that was the most knowledge I had about him. I didn't know much. When I found out he was coming here I was excited. I know he demands a lot out of his players and he gets what he wants. And in the end, we're all here to win and he's a winner and that's the bottom line."
Burnside: In your conversations with him, are there any early surprises, things that you went, oh I didn't know he would be like that or that he would ask me that?
BENN: Yeah, there's been actually many things that he's talked about. The first time I sat down with him we chatted for about an hour and a half. It was very noticeable right away his knowledge of the game and the game plan that he had set, it was like he already coaching here for a couple of years. He was well on his way. He's way ahead of the game and it's quite impressive."
Burnside: I spoke to him this morning and he's got it all planned out from rookie camp to training camp to exhibition games right into the start of the regular season.
BENN: He's well ahead of the game and very detailed. He could probably tell you who's going to be in the lineup in mid-January here.
Burnside: When you see the things that have happened here personnel-wise, when you look at the changes what's your feel about this team?
BENN: It's exciting. We're making changes for the better here and for the long-term. I think we've brought in some pretty key pieces that we need to take that next step. It's not easy to win in this league especially in our division, we've got a pretty tough division. It's exciting the players that we brought in. We all kind of have our group chat going around and the boys are excited. Hopefully we can put this together quick and find some team chemistry, really bond well as a team.
Burnside: Alexander Radulov said he'd spoken to you (before he signed) and it sounded like it was really important to him. I assume you've talked to all the new guys, what's that process been like for you?
BENN: It's just important to reach out and to let these new guys know that we're excited to have them here and they're going to help us win. I think reaching out to Radulov during his decision making was important whether it worked or not. I did it with some other players and it didn't work out, you just don't hear about it. I did it with Rads and it worked out."
Burnside: Do you like that? Is that part of your role you become more and more comfortable doing?
BENN: I'm comfortable doing it. I think I've earned some respect from the guys around the league and I've got a lot respect for all the players that I play with and against. So, I know I'm not the only player doing it, so why not reach out and see if we can get a little bit of an advantage."
Burnside: Are you here for a while? What's the balance of the summer look like?
BENN: I'm actually heading out of town again tonight, so I'm going to get away again and I'll be poking my head in here in a couple of weeks. Maybe. Just kind of going back and forth from here and L.A. just get really dialed in here for the season."
Burnside: Are you skating out there?
BENN: I'm skating out there too. You've got to stay on top of it these days.
This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB.