The 17-year-old Benn had recently grown several inches in Grade 10 and was just starting to figure himself out as a hockey player. He didn’t really think about the draft and didn’t plan for his future as a professional hockey player. Until that day.
Said Jamie, “I definitely took hockey a little more seriously after that.”
Added brother Jordie, “It was almost like ‘holy cow, the NHL? I’m drafted! I can actually take a run at this!’”
Since then, Benn has turned 200-foot hockey consistency into an everyday habit. He may not have the flash of some other players in the NHL, but his strength is in his all-around game and high-level numbers he’s put up since the 2013-14 season.
While Chicago’s Patrick Kane has been the runaway favorite for the Hart Trophy so far this season, the 26-year-old Benn, who ranks second behind Kane in the NHL In scoring, has also proved he has some of the most valuable tools in the NHL.
Benn has 50 points in 38 games to Kane’s 53 points in that same stretch. Benn also has scored 23 goals to lead the NHL.
“He has a lot of elements in place that take him above other good players,” an NHL executive said. “He’s better than other good players – other highly touted players. The last year and a half or maybe more, I wouldn’t say he’s burst on, it’s fair enough that he’s a new name to be included in the elite player category, but he’s been improving and a good player for more than just the last year and a half. He’s been a good player and now he’s an elite player.”
Understanding the 6-foot-2, 210 pound Benn comes from watching him every day over the course of 82 games. Some games will be worse than others, but he stays level. It’s over the course of this timeframe that he starts to gain respect.
Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill pointed out how Benn methodically moved up Team Canada’s depth chart for the 2014 Olympics – first as a player who was on the fringe of making the team, to then becoming one of Canada’s top players.
“That’s kind of Jamie Benn. That’s kind of how he goes about things,” Nill said. “He’s a little unassuming then all of a sudden he grows into the role and you’re like, ‘this guy is better than we thought.’”
That’s how Benn’s peers also describe him. When forward Jason Spezza was traded to Dallas from the Ottawa Senators, he knew Benn was a solid player from playing against him in the past. But watching Benn produce every day pushed his admiration to a higher level.
“I respected him a lot as a player and I respected his game, but I probably didn’t expect him to be as good as he is,” Spezza said. “I think his game is definitely underrated.”
It even took a while for the Stars to also know what they had. Benn played for his hometown Victoria of the British Columbia Hockey League when Dallas selected him. When he moved to the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League the following year, his game took off. Playing against tougher competition forced him to focus more on improving his own skills. His first year he had 65 points in 51 games. His second year in the WHL, Benn notched 82 points in 56 games and made Team Canada’s World Junior team.
“He put himself up against other kids that were drafted out of the WHL. He measured himself and saw it as a real opportunity to grow. He had good coaching and had a great opportunity,” Dallas assistant general manager Les Jackson said. “When he saw himself up against the other players, he figured he had a chance to do pretty well at this game.”
After that initial marked improvement Benn has continued his steady rise as a professional.
In his NHL career, Benn’s scored 22 goals or more every full season. His last three years he has 216 points in 201 games played.
The past two seasons he has been on the Stars’ second penalty killing unit. Benn is mostly a winger, but can also play center. He can take draws and wins close to 50 percent of them.
According to War-on-Ice, Benn’s 5-on-5 CF% is at 54.91 this season, and his CF% Rel is at 3.20. Last season he was at 54.52 CF% and 3.38 CF% Rel. This means his team possesses the puck more when he’s on the ice than when he’s not at even strength. It also means when he's on the ice his team holds onto the puck more than his opponent.
“Benn can play at a high speed. He can play tough. He can play defensive, offensive, any situation,” an NHL scout said.
On Dec. 19 against the Montreal Canadiens, Benn separated defenseman Jeff Petry from the puck in the offensive zone with a big bodycheck. He then forced the play in the Habs’ end and helped create enough space for Seguin to fire a goal.
“That kind of showed just about everything he could do in one play,” forward Patrick Sharp said.
During the offseason, Benn underwent two hip procedures. He spent the summer in Dallas, rather than his native Victoria, and stayed on a closely monitored workout plan and strict dietary regimen.
His days revolved only around rehab for his hips and exercise for the rest of his body.
“He just trained all the time. He puts a lot on his shoulders being the captain of our team. He didn’t want to let us down in that he wasn’t ready for the season. Coming off double hip surgery it’s pretty crazy how he’s progressed so far,” Jordie said. “I think he came back to Victoria for two days and it was one of those things to come home and say, ‘hi’ just to do it and then the rest of the summer was him in the gym training and getting ready for the season.”
Even though Benn is arguably the best player on the best team in the league, and one of the top forwards in the NHL the last two years, he hasn’t picked up a lot of hardware to show for it.
In 2014-15 he won the Art Ross Trophy, given to the NHL’s leading scorer, but was a second-team All-Star and finished 12th in MVP voting. Since the 2004-05 lockout that is the lowest an Art Ross winner has finished in Hart Trophy voting – as picked by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.
Dallas didn’t make the playoffs, which didn’t help Benn as far as awards, but also a bulk of Benn’s points came in the stretch run when he had 23 points in his last 12 games played. It was enough to win the scoring title, but too little too late for awards.
“I think he really woke a lot of people up in the hockey world with his stretch drive last year,” the scout said. “Even though they didn’t go deep, coming in the last week to take over the scoring lead and just finishing the way he did.”
Kane’s visibility through team success, along with is offensive talent, also helps his case over Benn. The Blackhawks won their third Stanley Cup since 2010 last year and in February, the team is set to play in their fourth outdoor game since 2009. The Stars have made the playoffs once since Benn’s first NHL season. That year (2014) he had five points in a six-game first-round loss to the Anaheim Ducks.
“When you’re playing in April, May and June all eyes are on ya, and a lot of people garner a lot of attention positive or negative,” Sharp said. “You’re playing in Winter Classic games, you’re playing in All-Star Games. You have to get there to get the eyes on you and I think Benn is well on his way.”
Sharp played eight seasons with Kane and sees a lot of similarities between Benn and Kane.
“For Patrick Kane, he’s a guy who wants the puck on his stick in all situations. There’s a reason why he’s scored a ton of big goals for the Blackhawks over the years. There’s a reason why he’s scored the OT winner to win the Stanley Cup. He’s that guy who wants to be on the ice. He wants the puck in big moments and there’s no stage too big for him,” Sharp said. “If I had to compare him to Jamie because the story’s on Bennie, I could say the same thing. He wants to be on the ice.”
Putting the two side by side, the exec picked Kane.
“He’s the finest clutch performer, with proof behind it,” he said.
The scout picked Benn more because of the tools, even if he hasn’t won at a high level yet.
“I think Benn’s all-around game, the offense, the defense and then you mix in the toughness as well, I don’t think you’re putting Kane out there for a defensive faceoff with a one-goal lead with 30 seconds to go in Game 7 whereas you would put Benn out there,” he said. “So if I had to start a team right now I think for the all-around player and what he brings I would take Benn.”
As for Benn, he doesn’t pay attention to any expectations placed on him by others. He's noted as someone who doesn’t like to talk about himself. As with most star athletes, team goals trump personal goals.
“I’d much rather win the Stanley Cup than the Art Ross,” Benn said. “I think probably every player in this league would say that. I don’t really care too much about the individual stuff, I care more about this team and what we have to do to help the Dallas Stars win a Stanley Cup here.”
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