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Emergence of Benn one of Stars’ biggest positives this season

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

The final taste of the 2010-11 season may not have gone down very smoothly for the Dallas Stars, but there’s no question that one of the highlights of the year was the emergence of second-year forward Jamie Benn into an elite-level player over the second half.

Jamie Benn Highlights
Despite missing 13 games to injuries, Benn still finished tied for fourth on the team in scoring with 56 points, while also matching his rookie-year total of 22 goals, including a team-high four while short-handed.

Amidst all the numbers, though, was the way Benn seemed to take charge of this team down the stretch and elevated his play when the team needed it most, contributing nine goals and 22 points over the last 20 games as the Stars battled to the final game for a playoff spot.

The soft-spoken Benn, still just 21, shrugged and suggested his improvement as the year wore on was simply due to getting more ice time. He finished the year averaging 18 minutes per game, but over that last stretch he was routinely double-shifted and logged 21:20 of ice time each night.

“I think it’s just getting a chance to play more, more experience,” said Benn, who saw a significant increase in ice time from the 14:42 he averaged as a rookie. “I got a lot of good opportunities this year, like I did last year, and I’m just trying to excel in those areas.”

Benn, the Stars’ fifth-round draft choice (129th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, began to heat up around Christmas, coming out of a nine-game stretch in which he’d recorded just one point (a goal) with a hot streak that could only be cooled off by an injury.

He amassed six goals and 17 points over 16 contests from late December into late January, a span in which the Stars went 10-4-2 and solidified their hold on the Pacific Division lead. Then, further illustrating Benn’s value to the Stars, he suffered a shoulder injury that cost him 10 games, coinciding with their well-documented post-All Star Game slide, a span in which they went 2-7-1. Shortly after he returned to the lineup, Benn reeled off a career-best 10-game scoring streak, which also included six straight games with a goal to match the longest such streak in the NHL this year, helping the club to a 5-2-3 record.

As part of that stretch, with the Stars needing a jolt to get re-ignite their playoff chase, Benn scored the dramatic game-winning goal March 1 in Phoenix with just five seconds remaining in regulation to lift the Stars to a much-needed 3-2 victory that sparked a 4-0-2 hot streak.

Since returning to the lineup, Benn was not only playing a lot, jumping from line to line and shifting back and forth from wing to center, but he was often matched up against the opponent’s top players, a responsibility he relished.

“I think that’s going to make me better,” said Benn, who also gained a tremendous amount of experience last spring helping lead the AHL Texas Stars to the Calder Cup Finals, scoring 14 goals and 26 points in 24 playoff games. “I’m always up for the challenge, and I’m always going to get better playing against the best.”

As far as bouncing between left wing or center, Benn excelled at both, but seemed to prefer center, where, although he has a lot more defensive zone tasks to attend to, he also is likely to have the puck on his stick more often.

“I’m open to anything, but I think center could be the spot for me,” acknowledged the 6-foot-2, 208-pound native of Victoria, BC. “The responsibilities are a lot bigger, especially in your own zone, you got to be a good defensive player and that’s what I want to be. I want to be a good all-around player and I think center brings out the best in me. (You have the puck) a lot more when you’re at center, but I like the puck, I want the puck, and I think that’s why center is a good spot for me.”

Benn’s impressive performance down the stretch did not go unnoticed around the league, as he was invited by Team Canada to skate in the upcoming World Championships, which begin next week, but Benn ultimately had to decline due to a nagging injury that he would not reveal.

“I’ll sit down and have a talk with (General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk) and see how the trainers feel about some stuff and then I’ll make my decision,” Benn said last week before the team dispersed. “I think it would be a good experience if I go and just another opportunity to play more hockey and get more experience.”

That didn’t quite work out, but despite the disappointing ending to the Stars’ season, just about everyone agrees that Benn was one of the club’s brightest spots this year. In fact, when discussing some of the team’s positives Dallas could take out of 2010-11, Nieuwendyk cited Benn’s improvement as the first one.

“We’ll do the evaluation of where we think we fell short and try to improve in those areas,” said Nieuwendyk, “but I really think a lot of the pieces are here in order to do that, like the emergence of Jamie Benn, who looks like he is going to be a front-line player going forward.”

Now the question will be, what can Benn do for an encore next season? Having looked so dominant throughout the second half, the bar has been raised for him, and he will be expected to be one of the Stars’ go-to guys next year.

“We have guys that got better as the year went on, a guy like Bennie, he started slow but his second half was amazing,” noted center Mike Ribeiro. “It’s good to see that he’s going to be that now, he knows how to play it and we’ll expect a lot next year. We’re anxious to see him next year and how he’s going to produce.”

Benn is confident he’ll return with an even better year in 2011-12 and fulfill those lofty expectations, which he also places on himself. To do that, he plans to embark on his off-season training regimen as soon as his undisclosed injury is healed.

“Just getting in shape, being in the best shape I can for next year,” Benn said of his summer to-do list. “I plan on taking on a big role with this team and I’m going to work hard to do that. Just legs and core, just get bigger and stronger and just come in with a better attitude for next year.”

With a determined and more mature Benn on board for next year, the future certainly looks bright.

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