It was at this time last year that Jamie Benn started his ascension to the top of the Dallas Stars prospects list. A fifth round pick in the 2007 draft, Benn had a solid year in Kelowna before really breaking out during the 2008 NHL Prospects Tournament. With five goals in four games, three of which were game-winners, Benn established himself as a force in the Stars system and embarked on a magical final season in the Canadian Hockey League. With 46 goals and 71 points in just 56 games and an incredible 33 points in 19 playoff games, Benn led the Kelowna Rockets to the WHL championship and was just one game away from winning the Memorial Cup.
With Benn putting up big numbers and firmly establishing himself as an emotional leader on the teams he plays on, Stars fans have begun to clamor for the promising young forward to make the jump to the NHL as soon as possible. Yet the Stars organization has had a plan in place for Benn and has seemed intent on sticking to it: Benn will be the star player for the Texas Stars this season, as he gets acclimated to a higher level of competition under the watchful eye of the Dallas coaching staff. This has been the plan for months now, even throughout Benn's big run in the WHL playoffs. Yet Benn may force the Stars to change their plans a bit, in a good way.
Jamie Benn is a player that has made a name for himself by scoring goals. Lots of them: 121 goals scored in the last three seasons in 160 regular season games. He possesses a deceptively hard snap shot and is extremely accurate in close. He's just as dangerous from 25 feet as he is around the net, where he uses his size and strength to outwork the defense for rebounds. Benn's not the flashiest goal scorer to come out of Canada but he's shown sharp instincts when the puck is on his stick and has many moves up his sleeves when left alone in space.
Yet it's the other aspects of Benn's game that have made him as promising a prospect as the Stars believe him to be. Each season he's increased he's increased his number of assists and has become an well-rounded threat, working hard to become a much more complete hockey player. Benn will enter camp bulkier than his listed size (6-2, 185), after working to add weight and strength to his frame. This has allowed Benn to become a much more physical player along the boards and in the open ice, a facet of his game that will be tested as he gears up for the NHL. Last season with Kelowna Benn flashed a nastier side to his game, showing a willingness to drop the gloves and be effective while doing so.
It's Benn's growth as a complete player that will give the Stars faith to call him up from the AHL as soon as given the chance. As witnessed by scout Dennis Holland, Benn's become reliable in the defensive zone as well after working to correct a weakness in his game:
"He put on weight, he was more physical and he really started to work on the defensive side of the game," Holland said. "Now, I would say he is as good on the penalty kill as he is on the power play. He sees a part of his game that needs work, and he goes after it. He wants to be a complete player."
After seeing the work Benn has put in this summer to improve all aspects of his game, and the way he's progressed in a quest to become a complete hockey player, the Stars front office has taken notice that it will be hard to keep him down in Austin for very long. Benn has stated several times this offseason that he is entering camp with the mindset of earning a spot on the NHL roster, despite how impossible that task might be. A lot of the focus on Benn as we near training camp has been on his attitude, work ethic and willingness to accept the pressure and expectations placed upon him by the media, fans and the team around him. Watching him play this past season in Kelowna and the way he emerged as one of the top leaders in junior hockey, it's tough to see Benn being bottled up in the AHL for very long.
Unfortunately the Stars have a wealth of talented left-handed wingers already on the NHL roster, and Benn would have to vastly outplay an established forward in training camp in order for the team to even think about adding him going into the season. Fabian Brunnstrom, Loui Eriksson, James Neal and Brenden Morrow all sit ahead of Benn on the Stars depth chart and no matter how incredible he might play in the preseason, its unfathomable that the Stars would drop one of those players in favor of the rookie.
Yet you'd have to imagine that as soon as injury trouble hit the Stars, Benn would be the first name to come to the mind both the fans and coaches. Benn has yet to score in two games in the Prospects Tournament this year while he's fought to deal with a nagging leg injury, but those in attendance have been impressed with his attitude and the way he's improved as a hockey player. The praise he's received is not given lightly and with a new coach and new General Manager, you know they would instantly jump on the chance to promote such a highly touted prospect. There would be an excitement surrounding his debut that would be tough to fathom; after all, Benn has the potential to be the next franchise player for the Dallas Stars.
It's not impossible for Benn to earn an NHL spot in training camp, however. Currently the team has exactly 12 forwards signed to NHL contracts; the team will need to take at least one extra forward into the season, and perhaps two depending on what the team decides to do with their eight defenseman. Ideally the Stars would take an experienced forward, such as Ray Sawada or Tom Wandell, out of camp. This way the Stars have some players who have spent time in the AHL and NHL and could provide depth without sacrificing the need for development. The Stars would rather not use Benn as one of these extra forwards, to afford him time to adjust to the higher level of play in the AHL and give him time to establish himself in Austin as one of the leaders of the Texas Stars. Then, depending on how he plays you consider calling him up once the injuries hit (which will happen).
No matter how good a training camp Benn has, even if he has the best preseason possible, it would be in the Stars best interest to keep him in the AHL as the season starts. Allow him some adjustment time, to the speed and physicality of the game at this level, before throwing him into the fire. That's what it will be; the Stars won't call up Benn just to be a stopgap on the fourth line. If he gets the call, it's going to be for significant ice time and it could be for good.
All signs point to Jamie Benn being as close as he possibly can to being ready to make the jump to the NHL. While the Stars will want to want until the timing is perfect, Benn could make a strong case for playing time at the next level if he continues his growth with the Texas Stars. He'll be the face of a brand new team in Austin and will immediately become it's best player, but if the circumstances are right his time there could be short.