Jamie Benn – A Superstar is Born

When I went to watch the visiting Kelowna Rockets play the Vancouver Giants during the 2007-08 WHL season, I was excited at the opportunity to see two of the top draft-eligible defensemen for 2008 – Tyler Myers and Luke Schenn. It was impossible to miss either of them on the ice – Myers, a 6-7 behemoth, controlled the play with his rangy skating and incredible wingspan. Schenn was a physical specimen who made forwards think twice of dumping it in to his corner. However, I left the game that night with one Kelowna Rocket fresh in my memory, and it wasn’t either of the defensemen.

Number 14 dominated with his size, skill, and offensive instincts.  I asked a question that night that was likely repeated by many amateur scouts that season:

“Who the heck is Jamie Benn?”

The Kelowna Rockets have been a defenseman-developing factory for the past decade – Shea Weber, Josh Gorges, Duncan Keith, Luke Schenn, and Tyler Myers, among others, have all suited up on the blue line for the Rockets. In 2007-08, the Rockets defense was a scouts dream – Schenn (5th overall in 2008), Myers (12th overall in 2008), and Tyson Barrie (64th overall in 2009) were all fixtures on the back end.

Scouts would eagerly flock to see Myers and Schenn, but it was Benn who was the one to watch. These scouts would leave games disappointed upon finding out that this unknown scoring sensation had already been drafted.

Benn was drafted in the 5th round (129th overall) of the 2007 NHL Draft by the Dallas Stars. He slipped in the draft largely because of where he was playing at the time – Benn spent that season with his hometown Victoria Grizzlies in the BCHL, a step below the WHL’s level of competition. The BCHL is the top Junior A league in British Columbia, and is the league of choice for many blue chip prospects who have plan to play in the NCAA (since players in the WHL are paid, they are considered professionals by NCAA standards, making them ineligible for the college game).

The BCHL produced a number of draft-eligible prospects that year, including Kyle Turris, who many scouts had right alongside Patrick Kane as the best prospect available. Benn’s 2006-07 season was statistically impressive – 42 goals in 53 games, but scouts wondered if he could translate his game to a higher level of competition. Benn’s skating was his major weakness, and scouts thought it would be a limiting factor as his career progressed. That season, he spent some time playing on a line with BCHL scoring sensation Tyler Bozak, who finished 2006-07 with 128 points in 59 games for the Grizzlies. Many believed that Benn’s surprising goal production was due in large part to playing with Bozak.

“There is little doubt that Benn’s numbers are slightly inflated from spending time on a line with BCHL scoring leader Tyler Bozak.”

NHL Central Scouting ranked Benn as the 107th best North American skater leading up to the draft.

Fast forward five years. 128 players were drafted ahead of Benn. Only four of them have more career points at the NHL level than his 160 – Patrick Kane, Sam Gagner, Jakub Voracek, and David Perron. Only one of them has a higher career points per game mark. To get an idea of how Benn stacks up:

Player NHL GP Points Points Per Game
Jamie Benn 222 160 0.72
Patrick Kane 399 369 0.92
Sam Gagner 366 220 0.6
Jakub Voracek 319 183 0.57
David Perron 292 173 0.59

Not bad.

The WHL

Benn had originally planned to play in the BCHL for two years, and then proceed to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He had been awarded a full hockey scholarship beginning in the fall of 2008. Benn changed his mind after his first (and only) season in the BCHL, joining Kelowna in 2008. His childhood friend Tyson Barrie was in Kelowna, and he gave Jamie the sales pitch on joining the Rockets. However, the biggest reason for Benn’s change in course was his performance at the Dallas prospects camp in the summer of 2008.

He dominated against older competition (most of whom were drafted much higher than he was), and according to Benn’s BCHL coach, Jackson Penny, “He saw the WHL as a better opportunity… to get to the pros faster.” Benn:

“The only thing that was going through my mind was to play hockey as long as I could. I just wanted to keep getting better. College hockey would have been a great opportunity to play and learn and get my education. But it didn’t work out that way.”

In two seasons with the Rockets, Benn unexpectedly emerged as a legitimate NHL prospect. In 107 career WHL games (regular season and playoffs) he scored 95 goals, including 14 goals in 24 playoff games in 2008-09, leading the Rockets all the way to the Memorial Cup Final (they lost to a heavily favored Windsor squad).

Benn led the Memorial Cup in scoring with nine points in four games, outshining the likes of Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, and Ryan Ellis.

NHL Rookie

Benn carried his stellar play into the fall, earning a roster spot with the Stars out of camp. He scored 22 goals in his rookie season. Benn also managed to suit up for all 82 games with Dallas. It is rare for a 20-year-old forward to stick around with an NHL club for an entire season, and even rarer for a 20-year-old selected in the 5th round to do so only two years after being drafted.

As a rookie, Benn’s 14:42 of ice time per game placed him eighth among Dallas forwards. His 22 goals ranked him third in NHL rookie goal scoring, behind only John Tavares and Matt Duchene, the 1st and 3rd overall picks at the 2009 draft.

The bulk of Benn’s ice time was spent on the wing alongside veterans Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro:

Frequency Strength 2009-10 Line Combinations
25.88% EV 14 BENN,JAMIE – 10 MORROW,BRENDEN – 63 RIBEIRO,MIKE
8.31% EV 14 BENN,JAMIE – 26 LEHTINEN,JERE – 18 NEAL,JAMES
7.37% EV 14 BENN,JAMIE – 10 MORROW,BRENDEN – 29 OTT,STEVE
6.66% EV 14 BENN,JAMIE – 10 MORROW,BRENDEN – 23 WANDELL,TOM

(All of the line combinations are courtesy of DobberHockey’s Frozen Pool section)

AHL Rookie

Very rarely does a hockey player play in the AHL after playing in the NHL (don’t tell this to Wade Redden), but that is what happened with Benn. After the Dallas season ended without a playoff birth, Benn was sent down to Texas. If his rookie season with Dallas was impressive, Benn’s play with Texas during postseason run in 2010 was sensational. He led the underdog Stars all the way to the Calder Cup Final, where they were defeated by a juggernaut Hershey Bears squad backstopped by goaltender Michal Neuvirth. Benn played zero regular season games for Texas that season, but in 24 postseason games he scored 14 goals and finished with 26 points. He was the only Texas player to post double-digit goal totals in the postseason, and he had 10 more points than any other player.

Benn’s dominance of the AHL put an exclamation point on an impressive start to his professional career.

No Sophomore Slump

In Benn’s second season with Dallas, his responsibilities were gradually increased. He played 18 minutes per contest, almost four minutes more than in his rookie season. He increased his point total from 41 to 56 (in 13 less games, too). Benn continued to thrive on a line with Morrow and Ribeiro, spending almost 40 percent of his shifts there.

Frequency Strength 2010-11 Line Combinations
37.06% EV 14 BENN,JAMIE – 10 MORROW,BRENDEN – 63 RIBEIRO,MIKE
6.11% EV 14 BENN,JAMIE – 21 ERIKSSON,LOUI – 91 RICHARDS,BRAD
5.78% EV 14 BENN,JAMIE – 16 BURISH,ADAM – 29 OTT,STEVE

Benn’s production reflected who he played with. Almost 40 percent of his even strength points came on that line, as well.

Str 2010-11 Line Combinations Points % of Points
EV BENN,JAMIE – MORROW,BRENDEN – RIBEIRO,MIKE 21 37.50%
EV BENN,JAMIE – ERIKSSON,LOUI – RICHARDS,BRAD 6 10.71%
EV BENN,JAMIE – OTT,STEVE – WANDELL,TOM 3 5.36%

The Stars kept him at his natural position of wing, and Benn blossomed into one of the best young forwards in the game.

The Year of Change

Dallas was forced to let Brad Richards leave as a free agent in the summer of 2011, as they were unable to meet his contract demands. With a huge hole at the center position, the Stars had to get creative. In limited duty, Benn had been tried at center in previous seasons. The Stars decided put him at center on a more regular basis in 2011-12.

Benn is a smart hockey player, and it should come as no surprise that he seamlessly transitioned from wing to center. Playing up the middle granted him more opportunities to handle the puck, but it also forced him to focus more on the defensive side of the game. He had to learn faceoffs, an entirely new skill.  Benn won less than 47 percent of the draws he took, as he struggled against more experienced opponents. He also had to establish chemistry with entirely new line mates. In his first two seasons he spent over 30 percent of his shifts with Morrow and Ribeiro, but in 2011-12 he played with his most regular linemates only 22 percent of the time.

Frequency Strength 2011-12 Line Combinations
21.95% EV 14 BENN,JAMIE – 21 ERIKSSON,LOUI – 73 RYDER,MICHAEL
12.51% EV 14 BENN,JAMIE – 29 OTT,STEVE – 73 RYDER,MICHAEL
10.75% EV 14 BENN,JAMIE – 21 ERIKSSON,LOUI – 29 OTT,STEVE
7.64% EV 14 BENN,JAMIE – 16 BURISH,ADAM – 29 OTT,STEVE

Benn and Eriksson were lethal when paired together, but due to a lack of depth the Stars attempted to balance their offensive units up front. Benn’s point production reflected his revolving door of wingers.

Strength 2011-12 On Ice Line Combinations Points % of Points
EV BENN,JAMIE – ERIKSSON,LOUI – RYDER,MICHAEL 13 20.97%
EV BENN,JAMIE – ERIKSSON,LOUI – OTT,STEVE 7 11.29%
EV BENN,JAMIE – OTT,STEVE – RYDER,MICHAEL 7 11.29%
EV BENN,JAMIE – BURISH,ADAM – OTT,STEVE 6 9.68%
EV BENN,JAMIE – OTT,STEVE – VINCOUR,TOMAS 4 6.45%
EV BENN,JAMIE – BURISH,ADAM – WANDELL,TOM 3 4.84%

Benn, unlike many other skilled forwards in the league, wasn’t given easy minutes. He saw just 2:17 of power play time per game, good for 138th among all NHL forwards. He started only 48 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, a very low total for an offensive forward. The Stars didn’t have the depth up the middle to shelter Benn’s ice time at all, and his production likely suffered because of this.

Among all NHL forwards in 2011-12, Benn trailed only Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Eberle in even strength points per 60 minutes (a very good measure of how well an offensive player is performing).

NAME GP Corsi Rel QoC P/60 Off Zone Start %
EVGENIMALKIN 75 0.28 3.66 65.9
JORDANEBERLE 78 0.48 3.08 60.7
JAMIEBENN 71 0.49 2.88 48.1

Benn started a significantly greater proportion of his shifts outside of the offensive zone, and he also faced much tougher competition than Malkin. Corsi Relative Quality of Competition is a very accurate measure of the caliber of competition a player faces.

A measure of competition quality using relative Corsi as its basis. It is less luck-driven than QualComp  and more universal than Corsi QoC because it’s based  on a relative metric. The most statistically sound quality  of competition metric currently used.

The zone starts are important to note, as well. Some teams, like the Vancouver Canucks, employ offensive and defensive zone specialists. Glen Gulutzan and the Stars don’t.

The 2011-12 NHL leaders in percentage of offensive zone starts:

NAME Off Zone Start %
DANIELSEDIN 79.6
HENRIKSEDIN 78.6
ALEXBURROWS 73.8
TOMASHOLMSTROM 66.8
PATRICKKANE 66.3
EVGENIMALKIN 65.9
JONATHANTOEWS 64.7
JAMESNEAL 64.4

In his third year, Benn was playing a new position for a team lacking in depth, and he was producing at a rate comparable to some elite talents in the NHL while playing harder minutes against tougher competition. His peers recognized how good he was becoming, as he was voted as the second most underrated player in the league by fellow players (Dallas fans are well aware of who the winner was).

There is no questioning that zone starts are a significant factor in a player’s production. The Sedin twins have combined to win two of the last three Art Ross Trophies. Holmstrom is up there because he can barely skate, and the Wings do a good job of sheltering his minutes and putting him in a position to succeed (the front of the net, as often as possible). Neal and Malkin were a dynamic duo this year in Pittsburgh, due in large part to the lack of defensive responsibility they were given (Jordan Staal and his 47.8 percent offensive zone starts say hello).

Benn was on a point-per-game pace before the All-Star Break, but he finished the season with only 21 points in the final 28 games. He was asked to do a lot for a team desperate to make the postseason, and the Stars simply did not have the depth to remain in the Western Conference playoff mix, fading fast in the final weeks.

The Future

On the ice, there are no concerns regarding Benn. He has become a franchise forward for Dallas, and the team can rest easy knowing it can build their offensive attack Benn and Eriksson for the next decade.

Tom Gaglardi, the new owner in Dallas, has made it abundantly clear that he is committed to putting a winning product on the ice. With better depth insulating Benn in the lineup (assuming the Stars bring in some forwards this offseason), expect Benn’s offensive production to increase dramatically. His low power play time should also see a bump up – it is simply too low for a player of Benn’s skill level.

The question of wing or center is one often discussed on Dallas sports radio and message boards. Most fans are in agreement that Benn is best on the wing, but they also agree that he was a very capable center out of necessity in 2011-12. Gulutzan sees Benn as a winger in the long term, as well.

“I think… we need a center that can help the Morrows, the Erikssons, and the Benns of the world.”

Moving Benn back to wing makes sense, but then who do the Stars plug in at center? The free agent market features a paper-thin class led by Olli Jokinen, and Steve Ott and Verne Fiddler are both much better suited to bottom-six roles.

Off the ice things get more interesting. Benn is a restricted free agent this summer, and the Stars want to keep him in the fold for a long time. Gaglardi:

“Obviously Jamie Benn is a cornerstone of our franchise. He is one of the key cogs for us going forward, and he could ultimately be a franchise-type player. He’s got that ability.”

That hardly sounds like an owner getting set to nickel-and-dime a player. However, with the 2005 CBA expiring in September, it appears that neither side is in a huge rush to get a deal done. Before the lockout, the second contract acted as a bridge between a player’s entry-level contract (ELC) and a big payday. However, with players now able to become unrestricted free agents at the age of 27 instead of 31 (thanks to the new CBA), teams are now forced to pay for upside and potential instead of proven production. In some cases this has worked out very well, while in others it has not (no thanks to Kevin Lowe).

Regardless of what happens with Benn’s next contract, you can count on him being a Dallas Star for a long time. More from Gaglardi:

“He’s going to be a Dallas Star. In terms of what his second contract looks like, it could be some kind of long deal. It could be a kind of interim deal…. From our perspective he is as key of a guy as there is on our team.”

Scouts are kicking themselves for passing on Benn multiple times back in 2007. He had the production and offensive skill set of a high-end prospect, but his draft stock was negatively impacted by the fact that he wasn’t playing against the best competition possible. Well, now he is, and he is doing just fine.

Don’t believe me?

Benn isn’t quite yet a household name in the NHL. Thanks to the 2012 All-Star Game (Benn and Logan Couture were the final two picks), more people now know what he looks like.

Benn Couture

More people now know that he has a pretty good shot, too.

Benn has proven that he can play center, but he is much more effective on the wing. The Stars know that, and their priority this summer will be to add at least one center to the roster.

Like every young star to play with the Stars, Benn has been compared to Mike Modano. Because of the level of impact Benn has had so early on in his career, the comparison makes some sense. There are similarities in their play – the intensity, the terrific skating ability, the diverse offensive skill set, and as seen from the picture above, the flowing locks. Modano is arguably the greatest American hockey player of all time, and inarguably the greatest Dallas Star of all time.

As Dallas Stars President Jim Lites said when Modano retired:

“Hockey in Dallas is Mike Modano.”

Add in three words and that sentence could describe Benn, too.

“The Future of hockey in Dallas is Jamie Benn.”

3 Comments

  1. Ross Bonander says:

    This is a fantastic article. I remember Benn’s first AHL playoff game, at home against Rockford. As Gully said of him, from shift one he was a vested guy, clobbering guys along the boards and absolutely setting the tone. In the second round he took on Chris Chelios like he meant to break the old man.

  2. Fantastic article.

    I’m a huge hockey fan so most newspaper/blog articles are just rehashing information I already know. This article was informative, coherent, and really well written.

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