If I had told you before this season started that the Dallas Stars would be relying on Tom Wandell and Jamie Benn to be the spark for an improbably push for a playoff spot, what would your response have been? Disbelief?
The Dallas Stars embark on a very important three-game road trip tonight, beginning in Vancouver against a very solid Canucks team. The Stars have just one win in their last eleven road games, a trend that has to be corrected immediately if this team even thinks it has a chance at sliding into the playoffs.
That the Stars even have this opportunity is improbable in itself, considering how dour things seemed this time last week. Yet the teams above Dallas in the standings have come down to earth a bit, that unbelievable pace by the top eight was unsustainable and the Stars now sit just four points out of 8th.
Unbelievably, it's going to be two young rookies that will make the difference as the Stars set off down the stretch.
With Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro and Jere Lehtinen all missing time due to injuries, the Dallas Stars are in a crucial stretch of the season without three of their best and veteran players. It's the loss of Ribeiro that is being felt the most, as the Stars scramble to find ways to replace his secondary scoring. With Marc Crawford being forced to keep his top line together just to ensure the Stars have a least one major scoring threat during the game, the onus falls on the rest of the team to take the pressure off the top line.
Jamie Benn began the season as a surprise starter out of training camp, getting a big opportunity due to his impressive showing in the preseason and some injuries the team was forced to deal with from the start. Yet Benn instantly showed that he would take advantage of such a big opportunity, impressing himself upon fans and coaches with his obviously high skill level, physicality, ruthlessness and impressive hockey intelligence. He made the switch to right wing to accommodate the Stars needs and he's been able to move from line to line with relative ease.
Benn has had his fair share of ups and downs throughout the season, just as you'd expect from a rookie. It seems as if he's been inches away from breaking out offensively multiple times throughout this season, with his wicked snap shots ringing off posts or the toes of a sprawling goaltender. This is a winger who is going to be very special in a very short amount of time for the Stars.
Yet he's being asked to be special now.
Not much was expected of Tom Wandell this season. He was thought of as a gritty fourth line player who was solid defensively and could eat up some penalty kill time without being an outright liability. As with Benn, it was apparent that he was going to be much, much more than what was originally thought. He's been one of the most impressive and solid defensive forwards this season for the Stars, and has instantly been compared to the Stars' young version of Jere Lehtinen.
Wandell is on the ice when the Stars need the team to lock down defensively, and he's shown that he has the sense and intelligence to make any play this team needs at the right time. He's been far from perfect, but he's been more that the Stars expected from him in his first full season in the NHL.
He made the jump much earlier than Jamie Benn, but Wandell has been asked to step up and take over the role of the number two center and find any way to spark the offense. He's shown an ability to cause havoc for the opposition with his energetic forechecking and his grit feeds into those around him.
Marc Crawford has pushed Tom Wandell, a natural center, and Jamie Benn, someone who never played center before in his career until last week, into the spotlight. The Stars need to find some way to get the pressure off Brad Richards and the results have been mixed so far. Since starting as a center against Montreal, Jamie Benn has no points and is a -2. Yet you see the enthusiasm and the skill he brings to the table and it's exciting to think what he could do once he gets his skates underneath him at the position.
Yet it's Wandell is who is now under the most pressure. Tabbed as the new second line center, he's being asked to not only provide defensive support against the opponent's top lines but to have enough of an offensive threat to make team's wary of his line. Against Montreal, the line of Steve Ott, Wandell and a reinvigorated Fabian Brunnstrom showed they have not only the physicality but the offensive skill needed to do both. The line was impressive once more against Detroit (although shuffled a bit throughout), yet really started to take hold against Minnesota. Brunnstrom came alive for the first time this season and Ott started to show he could still be the same player that caused so much havoc last season.
There are concerns. Wandell still doesn't have the strength and bulk to win all of the battles along the boards, a trait shared by Brunnstrom. Yet with Ott next to them, the hope is that drawback is counterbalanced somewhat. After disappearing on the scoreboard for a long while, Wandell is finally starting to come into his own as a playmaking center.
As the Stars continue on their road to new beginnings and an unknown future, Wandell and Benn are going to be major pieces of this team in the long term. Yet they're being asked now, perhaps prematurely, to shoulder a load which no one thought they'd be asked to take on just a few months ago.
Jamie Benn and Tom Wandell. Two rookies still finding their way in the NHL, both finding themselves asked to be centers on a team that is desperately making a push for a playoff spot.