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Scouting: How Jamie Benn Became a Dallas Star

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

This is the fourth in a series of profiles on the Dallas Stars’ amateur scouting department as we inch closer to the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh on Friday and Saturday, where the Dallas Stars are set to make the 13th pick in the first round, as well as seven more selections. Stars fans might not be as familiar with this year’s crop of future NHL stars as an NFL fan would be with a top Penn State linebacker or USC quarterback, for example. But rest assured, the Stars’ extensive group of amateur scouts is extremely familiar with them.

When the NHL Entry Draft is held later this week, the first round will receive a lot of attention. Specifically, there will be three hours (and them some) of television coverage breaking down and analyzing the selections, many of them blue-chip, can’t-miss prospects who will go onto star in the NHL. There will be even more coverage in the days following.

The selections in the later rounds, those players picked in the back half of the draft, won’t get as much attention. Some will get very little coverage at all, except maybe in their hometown newspapers. But you can be sure that there will be a few hidden gems in the draft, products of shrewd scouting who go on to make their mark in the game. There always are.

Some of those late round picks in NHL drafts have turned out to be among the biggest names in the game: Brett Hull (117th), Luc Robitaille (171st), Doug Gilmour (134th) and Dominik Hasek (207th).

There are several late round picks among the biggest stars of the game today: Pavel Datsyuk (171st), Henrik Zetterberg (210th), Henrik Lundqvist (205th) and Pekka Rinne (258th).

Jamie Benn won the shot accuracy event at the 2012 All-Star Skills competition.

The Dallas Stars found their own late round gem in 2007, picking forward Jamie Benn in the fifth round with the 129th overall pick. How far the 22-year-old Benn will climb in his NHL career is still to be determined, but if that 2007 NHL Draft were to be done again, you can bet Benn would be in the top five overall, instead of top five rounds.

“We were lucky,” Les Jackson, Stars Director of Player Personnel, said of the selection of Benn. “If we were so smart, we would have had him earlier. If we knew he was going to be this good, he would have been a first-round pick.”

Sure, there was some luck involved. There was some good work behind the pick too, as there is with any late-round gem. The player’s name isn’t picked out of a hat. Someone had to scout the player, had to see something in him.

“If you do your work in your regions, you are going to have a chance at some of these guys,” Jackson said. “Jamie was basically identified by Dennis in his region.”

Dennis would be Stars scout Dennis Holland, whose region includes the British Columbia Hockey League, where Benn was playing for his hometown Victoria Grizzlies in his draft year.

“I think I was the first one to actually see him physically play,” Holland said. “But it was our scouting staff as a team; we all take part in the victory in getting a good NHL player.”

Benn is one of the top young NHL players now, but five years ago, nobody was predicting he’d be where he is today. The 17-year-old left wing was putting up some big numbers for Victoria during the 2006-07 season, but he wasn’t creating much of a ruckus on the radar of those scouting young talent for the NHL draft.

The BCHL, a Junior ‘A’ league, is a level below and isn’t as heavily scouted as the Canada’s Major Junior hockey leagues – the Ontario Hockey League, Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – which produces a majority of draft picks each year, including 46 percent of the players drafted by NHL teams in 2007.

Playing in Victoria didn’t help – as you just don’t hop in your car and drive to Victoria, which is on Vancouver Island.

“You have to take a ferry or an airplane to get to where he played in junior,” Holland said. “The Victoria Royals weren’t in the Western Hockey League at the time and it was a process to get over there. You lost a day-and-a-half of travel because of the ferry. Lots of scouts decided to go see the (WHL’s) Vancouver Giants or the Seattle Thunderbirds.”

Adding to Benn’s low profile that year was that he did not get invited to play at two events where he might have caught the attention of several scouts. One was the Junior ‘A’ Challenge, a tournament featuring top Junior ‘A’ players from Canada and other countries. The other was then called the CJAHL Top Prospects game, which featured top Junior ‘A’ players from around Canada'.

Dennis Holland was the scout responsible for getting Benn to Dallas.

“He was a young man who didn’t get a whole bunch of viewings, didn’t get a whole bunch of respect from his league,” said Holland.

But Holland was among the scouts who did see Benn play and saw a kid with some good attributes and plenty of potential.

“He was a player with outstanding stick skills and an NHL shot back when he was 17. He had real good vision,” said Holland. “What I noticed about him was his improvement potential. He was just a raw, raw kid. When talking to the coaches and talking to people, he was an outstanding baseball player and really never physically trained for hockey. You could tell his strength and conditioning wasn’t there.”

Take five scouts, have them look at a player and you might get five different assessments. But one weakness noted by a lot of the scouting reports on Benn at the time was his skating. The Red Line Report, an independent scouting service, was particularly harsh, ranking Benn among the five slowest players in the draft.

“We’re not sure if he’s really that slow, or he just refuses to move,” Red Line Report said in its 2007 Draft Guide.

Holland saw the skating issue differently.

“His skating was just OK at the time,” said Holland. “Looking back, it was due to lack of leg strength. He was tough to get out of the blocks, his speed was just OK at the Tier II level. But once he had the puck you didn’t get it back from him, he made the right play every time.”

A key factor in evaluating any player over time is how he progresses over time and the improvement he makes. Holland admitted that after seeing Benn early on, it was tough to go back for more looks because of the travel to Victoria and because he had to see other games, other players. He did, however, have an extra set of eyes on Benn.

“With anything, you have to get a little lucky with where you live, what you know or who you know,” Holland said. “My sister lives in Victoria and my brother-in-law works security for the team Jamie played for, so he was at all their games.”

And that meant a call to catch up with family matters might include Holland catching up with how that Benn kid was faring as well. It would go something like this, according to Holland.

“How’s that Benn kid doing there in Victoria?”

“Playing well, scoring a ton, doing this, doing that.”

“OK. Good. Good.”

Holland did make it back to see Benn late in the Grizzlies’ season, and it was like rekindling an old flame.

“I kind of fell in love with him again,” Holland said. “He had really taken good steps from the times I had seen him previously. I made sure Les Jackson and Tim Bernhardt (former Director of Amateur Scouting) came in and liked what they saw.”

Benn finished the season with 42 goals and 23 assists in 52 games for Victoria. The Stars scouting staff liked the skills and the potential for growth.

Benn skating for the Kelowna Rockets of WHL in 2007.

“That’s one of the key things you look for, room for improvement. He was big for his age (6-2, 185 pounds), he could really handle the puck, read the game and he was dangerous offensively,” Jackson said. “As far as his skating, he was one of those guys who was a lot better when he had the puck than when he didn’t – he seemed to be energized and showed flashes of high-end (skill) with it.”

When everything was added up, it didn’t make Benn – still that “raw talent” – someone projected to go in the upper end of the draft.

Central Scouting had Benn ranked 107th going into the draft, and that was among forwards and defensemen playing in North America. International Scouting Services, an independent ranking service, had him 154th. Another independent service, McKeen’s, had him ranked 174th. The Red Line Report, which had ripped his skating, didn’t have him listed among its top 300 players eligible for the draft.

Holland remembered Dallas having Benn slotted in the fourth round, and the Stars entered the 2007 draft with two picks in the fourth. But they ended up trading one of them (94th overall) to Columbus for three additional fifth round picks (128th, 129th and 149th).

With their remaining fourth round pick (112th overall) they opted to take right wing Colton Sceviour from the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League.

“(Sceviour) hadn’t played much and was in and out of Portland’s lineup because of injuries. He fell in the draft and was more well-known going into the year,” Holland said. “We took a flier on him because in the games we had seen him, it looked like he had something. That kind of pushed Jamie back a little bit.”

And then it was onto the fifth round, where the Stars now had four picks thanks to that trade with the Blue Jackets.

“Les looked at Timmy and said, ‘what about Benn?’” Holland recalled. “I said, ‘we were willing to take him in the fourth round, we certainly can him take in the fifth.’”

With their first of four picks in the fifth round (128th overall) the Stars took right wing Austin Smith, a Dallas native, who had played at a Connecticut prep school that season. And then with the next pick, the 129th overall, the Stars selected Benn. The rest, as is often said, is history.

“I’d like to say he was a first-round potential. There was lots of growth left and lots of potential, maturity and strength work that needed to be done,” Holland said. “I knew, if nothing else, at least he had the stick skills. He worked on the other parts. He’s gotten better in the gym. He’s matured.”

And that skating issue?

“Talking to other scouts, they can’t believe how far he has come with skating,” Holland said.

Benn, who had been planning on attending college at Alaska-Fairbanks when he was drafted, changed his career path. He decided to play for the Kelowna Rockets, who held his rights in the Western Hockey League. He played two years there, scoring 46 goals in 56 games in his final season. He put up big offensive numbers in the playoffs as the Rockets won the WHL championship and made it to the Memorial Cup. He also helped Canada win a gold medal at the 2009 World Junior Championship

“He was just scratching the surface of where he was going to go,” said Jackson. “Once he got into the Western League and eventually into the World Juniors, he was measuring himself against the best players in his age group and he was doing pretty well. I think he saw that he could take his game to a higher level, and he has. Even at the NHL now, he’s still a young guy. He’s only scratching the surface of where he can go.”

Benn’s made some impressive strides in his three-year NHL career. His 70 goals rank fourth among all players taken in the 2007 draft and his 160 points rank fifth. If you break it down to points-per-game, he ranks second only to Patrick Kane, who was taken first overall by Chicago that year.

“I think Les Jackson has done a great job of keeping us focused on ‘our job isn’t done after the first round, that’s kind of when our job starts,’” said Holland. “If we can find some good players in that back half of the draft, like the Detroit Red Wings have, that’s kind of where you make your hay. That’s how we earn our salaries and how we can tip the scale in Dallas’ favor, finding those hidden gems. They’re out there. There will be another Jamie Benn in the draft this year, someone who is going to fall into the fifth or sixth round and end up being a top six forward or a top four defenseman. Someone is going to get him, and we just hope it’s going to be the Dallas Stars again.”

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