A quick disclaimer: the opinions expressed in these articles are purely objective, if for no other reason than I have yet to see Jamie Benn or Fabian Brunnstrom play in a Stars jersey this preseason. Instead all I have to go on are the reports of Mike Heika, Mark Stepneski and our own Brad G, as well as the actions of Marc Crawford.
When camp started ten days ago the predominant theory was that there was just one roster spot available for a young prospect to claim, especially with the Stars apparently set to head into the NHL season with eight defensemen. If the Stars drop one of the blue-liners, that could open up another spot but most likely leads to the Stars just carrying 22 players on the roster with their AHL affiliate just a few hours away.
At the time, I was ready to place either Ray Sawada, Tom Wandell or Warren Peters in that open spot since all three were solid and versatile young "veterans". There had also been talk all summer about WHL sensation and top prospect Jamie Benn and what his chances were to make the NHL roster out of camp. With the Stars insisting he needed time in Austin to adjust to this level of play we've been assuming that would be the case unless Benn left no doubt that he belonged in the NHL after training camp.
And he's close to that level right now.
Currently there are two positions on the Stars that are an unknown at this point, both on the right wing. James Neal, Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson have entrenched themselves as the second line, and Steve Ott seems to be a lock to play on the left wing with Mike Modano. Crawford has repeatedly said that Jere Lehtinen will play on the right of Modano when he returns from injury, so that left others with the belief that Fabian Brunnstrom would just slide up to the right wing on the top line.
Earlier this offseason, we made the argument that the top line is where Brunnstrom could be at his best. Yet so far he has been invisible, both in games and in practices. He hasn't played horribly yet he has not progressed to become the dangerous scoring threat he hinted he could be as the season ended in April. Brunnstrom has seemingly lost confidence in himself and has had trouble adjusting to the new offensive system Marc Crawford is implementing. It took him a few months last season to finally get in a groove, and that was only after the Stars were eliminated from playoff contention. For a player touted to be a great scoring machine, Brunnstrom was disappointing overall. He hasn't shown much this preseason and with a new coaching regime in place, patience could be short.
Jamie Benn meanwhile, has spent most of camp playing with Mike Modano on the right wing while Lehtinen has been hurt. It's not his natural position, but he's shown an ability to drive the net from both sides of the ice and has apparently seamlessly grown into playing from the right wing. He built good chemistry with Modano and his physicality and scoring touch have provided a spark for the team on several occasions in the preseason. His teammates have tremendous respect for him (Brenden Morrow said he was the best player on the ice for the Stars last night), his coach has been impressed so far and his general manager has stated several times that Benn is more than ready to make the jump to the NHL. He just needs the chance.
The roads of the two wingers converged last night against the Florida Panthers.
With the Stars in the middle of a lackluster and flat performance on the ice, Marc Crawford decided to shake things up a bit in the third period. He placed Benn on the top line Ribeiro and Morrow. If you really analyze all three players its obvious just how good a match this is for the top line. Benn is a physical winger with tremendous hands and a soft touch with proven leadership ability, who has shown that he can finish in front of the net when a play is made by a teammate. He also has become a playmaker himself, with great passing touch and deceptively quick feet and hands. With Morrow and Benn flanking Ribeiro, the Stars' top center has two players that can fight the battles along the boards and in front of the net while also having the hands to finish the plays from his signature passes. Morrow has evolved into one of the most underrated scoring threats in the NHL playing next to Ribeiro, and it's scary to think what a confident and experienced Jamie Benn can do if permanently placed on that line.
So if the Stars do decide to keep Jamie Benn for that extra roster spot and deem him worthy of top line minutes (no matter what is said here, this is still very much a long shot), then you could say the lines would look something like this when Jere Lehtinen returns:
Morrow - Ribeiro - Benn
Neal - Richards - Eriksson
Ott - Modano - Lehtinen
Sutherby - Petersen - Barch
This leaves Brunnstrom as either a healthy scratch rotating with Benn (likely), or in a rotation of the fourth line (less likely). Brunnstrom doesn't possess the physicalilty and grit necessary to provide the spark that is needed on the fourth line, and it would seem a waste to relegate his scoring talent to minimal minutes.
Yet as each game and practice progresses, it becomes more and more obvious how much more valuable Jamie Benn is becoming to the Dallas Stars than Brunnstrom. Benn is versatile on the left and right wing, has tremendous leadership capabilities and is just as good in the defensive zone as he is with the puck. He's a smart hockey player who continues to improve daily and shows the drive that is necessary to learn from his mistakes and move on. Brunnstrom on the other hand has lost confidence, disappears at times for long stretches on the ice and showed last year he is a tremendous defensive liability.
Brunnstrom is in the second year of a two-way entry level contract, with the potential to rack up $1.35 million in performance bonuses on top of a $825,000 salary. Technically, the Stars can send him down to the AHL if they deem necessary and if his level of play continues it will come to that point. If the Stars decide that Benn is more valuable than Brunnstrom the best spot for him to play would be in Austin, where he would get top minutes and have the chance to get his scoring touch and confidence back. But when Brunnstrom signed with the Stars, there was a gentleman's agreement on both sides that he would not spend any time in the AHL. Last season he was briefly assigned to the Manitoba Moose, but that was voluntary and due to the need for a rehab start or two. It will be interesting to see how a new coach and new general manager handle that agreement and whether Brunnstrom accepts that he needs time and minutes to improve.
All of that being said, it's important to remember that a NHL roster is fluid, with players changing almost daily. With the Stars just a few hours away from Austin and with injuries inevitably set to hit at some point this season, Jamie Benn will be playing for the Stars sooner than later. But the big question is whether Benn is more useful than Brunnstrom and whether the Stars decide to go down that road initially or wait and see if Brunnstrom improves.
The next few days will be interesting.