While all of the talk surrounding the Dallas Stars has been of breakout rookie Jason Robertson, the Stars’ recent success has just as much to do with the play of their veteran captain, who has turned himself into a formidable two-way center and awoken the Stars’ second line.
It started when Dallas encountered more injury trouble early in April, prompting head coach Rick Bowness to play Jamie Benn at center for a much-needed win against the Chicago Blackhawks. Benn put together an impressive two-assist game in the team’s 5-1 win and has not vacated the position since. The team is 7-1-2 since he moved from his natural left wing and is knocking on Nashville’s door for the final playoff ticket in the Central — just two points back with two games in hand. Benn has been playing well in a number of ways, but let’s take a deeper look into why his individual success is translating into team success during the Stars’ recent run.
Making Space for Gurianov
Most of the Stars’ offensive output this season has come via their dynamic top line of standout rookie Jason Robertson, Finnish speedster Roope Hintz, and veteran scorer Joe Pavelski, who are the top three goal scorers on the team. With so many injuries to their forward core throughout the year, the Stars have struggled to find any consistency behind their big three. Prior to Benn moving to center, he had scored just four goals in his last 29 games, and he wasn’t the only one struggling.
After leading the Stars in goals last season and recording big tallies throughout the Stars’ playoff run, young sniper Denis Gurianov has been much less noticeable this year. At separate points, Gurianov has found himself in 10, and 15 game goal droughts, and the Stars have sorely missed his production.
Recently, however, Benn’s play up the middle of the ice has created space for his once-struggling Russian linemate. Gurianov has found a home alongside the Stars’ captain and regained his confidence, registering seven points in the last six games. Heavy work along the boards and cerebral passing have gotten Gurianov back in the goal column and shooting the puck frequently, which are good signs for the defending Western Conference champs.
Vintage Jamie Benn
There’s no question that Benn has looked like a more dangerous offensive presence since the move to center in early April. He is skating extremely well and getting in hard on the forecheck to create chances for his teammates. Benn is also playing solid hockey behind his own blue line, oftentimes a weakness for players who are migrating from a winger position. Benn isn’t entirely foreign to the position, though, having played center for short stints with other Stars head coaches.
Benn has nine points in the 10 games and has a plus-9 rating during that span. He has also found success on faceoffs, a crucial but often overlooked aspect of the game, with his patented clean the dot and rip it back strategy. Over the 10 game stretch following his move to center ice, Benn has taken 153 draws and won 60.8 percent of them, a number hovering around Patrice Bergeron’s league-best faceoff win percentage. With the success on the dots and the sound defensive play, he has morphed himself into a two-way center throughout April and given the Stars offense a new look and depth.
While playing center, Benn is showing flashes of the Art Ross Trophy heavy power forward that he once was, always threatening to take over the hockey game. His work has not gone unnoticed by Stars head coach Rick Bowness, who has liked his game of late, saying, “being at center gives him a little bit more freedom that way, and he’s taking advantage of it.”
Benn had another solid outing and scored the overtime winner in Detroit on Saturday night to lift the Stars out of overtime despair to their first overtime victory since Jason Dickinson did the same against the Red Wings in Dallas on Jan 26. The win capped a 3-1-0 week against the Discover Central Division’s second-worst team and sent the Stars back home to American Airlines Center, where they will play two games against the Hurricanes before heading on a season-concluding seven-game road trip.
Stars Continue to Push for Playoffs
While the Stars have found their stride recently, it has come against less formidable opponents than the ones they will be facing down the stretch. Benn will have his hands full on both sides of the puck starting against Carolina and Tampa Bay, but he knows that he and the Stars remain in control of their destiny.
Peter is a Dallas Stars writer at THW. He grew up playing hockey in Los Angeles and Dallas and has followed the Stars closely for over a decade. He currently studies psychology at Stanford University and plays on the hockey team. You can find more of his work at MuffinHockey.com and weekly NHL recaps at the Stanford Daily Newspaper. To make article requests or ask questions, contact him on twitter @MuffinHockey.