"Do you see some of yourself in him?"
It was an innocent question. The key word was "some." Joe Nieuwendyk, now the general manager of the Dallas Stars, was a soft-spoken Canadian centerman with a scoring touch. He was listed at 6-foot-2, 209 pounds. Jamie Benn is a soft-spoken Canadian centerman. He is listed at 6-foot-2, 205.
But listen to this:
"I wish I had the talent, the skills that he has," Nieuwendyk said.
"That's saying a lot."
"Well, maybe it's saying a lot about myself," he said.
Funny. Nieuwendyk scored 51 goals in each of his first two full NHL seasons. He won the Calder Trophy, the Conn Smythe Trophy and three Stanley Cups, plus an Olympic gold medal. He was a captain, a winner. He is a Hall of Famer.
No one is saying Benn is headed to the Hall. No one is even saying he is a franchise player. Not yet. But this is how highly Nieuwendyk thinks of Benn's ability, and this is the opportunity the Stars need Benn to seize, and these are the expectations Benn faces now that he has signed a five-year, $26.25 million deal.
"What does he have that you wish you had?"
"I liked scoring goals, and for the better part of my career, I focused on scoring goals," Nieuwendyk said. "I think he's a real gifted playmaker as well, and he can score and he can be dominant out there. I'm not so sure I was ever dominant."
Go to YouTube. Type "Jamie B" in the search bar, and "Jamie Benn highlights" will pop up automatically. It's easy to see what he can do at his best. Maybe he can do some things Nieuwendyk never could, especially with bad knees and a bad back.
Pull up Benn's statistics. It's easy to see growth over his first three seasons. Goals in the 22-26 range. Points rising from 41 to 56 to 63. Plus/minus going from minus-1 to minus-5 to plus-15 last season.
But now comes the hard part – the critical part for a franchise in transition. The Stars have emerged from bankruptcy. They have a new owner in Tom Gaglardi. After four years out of the playoffs, they are off to a 2-4-1 start.
They need a new identity in Dallas on and off the ice. They need a new Mike Modano, the superstar who once was the face of the franchise, who has retired and rejoined the organization as an executive advisor.
It won't be captain Brenden Morrow, who has faded to a fourth-line role and whose contract runs out after this season. It won't be Jaromir Jagr or Ray Whitney, the 40-something veterans the Stars signed to one- and two-year deals, respectively. It won't be Kari Lehtonen, who is an excellent goalie, but a goalie. It won't even be Loui Eriksson, who has been called underrated for so long, it's overrated.
It has to be Benn.
It doesn't have to happen overnight, as difficult as it is for the team's hardcore fans to remain patient. But it has to happen in the coming years as the Stars – whose affiliate ranks among the best in the American Hockey League – try to rebuild into a contender.
"He's going to be the centerpiece of all that," Nieuwendyk said. "This will one day be his locker room when those [veterans] aren't there."
To this point, Benn has been a nice little success story. He was only a fifth-round pick in 2007, 129th overall, out of Jr. B in Victoria, B.C. Then he starred in major junior with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League, starred on Canada's world junior team and produced immediately in the NHL.
Benn is now regarded as one of the top players to come out of that 2007 draft. He missed training camp and the start of the season while negotiating his contract, and after making less than $1 million a year on his entry-level deal, he landed an average salary of $5.25 million. When his signing was announced during a home game, the fans roared.
It's a sensitive subject around the Stars, because Morrow is so respected and handling this so professionally. But it's no secret Benn could become the captain one day – if he earns it.
"I think he has the potential to grow into that," Nieuwendyk said. "He's going through a lot of experiences that are only going to help him down the road, and this contract is probably another one, the pressure of it. I think it was very tough on him, and now he's got to play with a big dollar attached to his name. Those things are important. He'll respond, and there will be some ups and there will be some downs, but you just hope that he continues to get better and he does all the right things."
Remember: Benn is only 23. He was a goal-scoring winger until the Stars switched him to center, a more demanding position. He has tasted the playoffs only once as a pro, and that was in the AHL, when he put up 14 goals and 26 points in 24 games as the Texas Stars went to the 2010 Calder Cup final. He still doesn't say much, even though those who know him say he says more than he used to.
"I'm not sure why I even switched to center, what the reason was," Benn said with a little laugh. "It's been a work in progress. It still is."
Originally it was because Brad Richards suffered a concussion, and then it was because Richards left as a free agent. The Stars want a big, two-way force in the middle who can compete with the Anze Kopitars and Joe Thorntons in the West.
Benn still has much room to grow. He needs to work on the details, especially faceoffs and defensive play. But he has put up good numbers without much power play time – only two goals and seven points on the PP last season – and that plus-15 came despite too many lapses.
"That number is indicative of how much he can push the pressure up ice," said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. "When he becomes an even better two-way player, I think that number is going to get sky-high."
The Stars signed Jagr and Whitney, hoping they would help the team make the playoffs and teach the youngsters. Benn needs to learn from them, but not defer to them. He needs to take advantage of increased power play time. He can keep quiet and lead by example, but that means more than YouTube highlights. That means bringing it every night against top competition.
This contract takes Benn until he's 28 and eligible for unrestricted free agency. If he grows into a franchise player, he will be poised for an even bigger payday – and the Stars will have a nice problem on their hands.
"I had a few chats with Joe throughout the process," Benn said. "He let me know I am a big part of this franchise moving forward. I want to be there. I want to be that big part of the franchise. I'm definitely looking forward to the next five years and growing hockey in Dallas."
"It was a grind on him, and it was a grind on our team having this process we wanted to avoid," Nieuwendyk said. "But sometimes these things happen. I think the big picture is …"
"The only thing I've ever tried to tell him was, 'Make good decisions. Be respectful of other people in the hockey world, and people will respect you. Try to conduct your career that way,' " Nieuwendyk said. "And he's off to a great start."
Key word: "start."