For a rookie, Jamie Benn's shoulders have sure held a lot of weight this season. He's in a new league, with new expectations. Really, that's the same situation for any rookie. But not many rookies have to learn a whole new position.
A couple of things had to happen before Mark Crawford could even consider playing Jamie Benn at center. First, Mike Ribeiro's throat was injured against the New York Rangers on Jan. 6. A few tired games from Mike Modano later, Crawford gave Benn the opportunity. Benn had never played the position before, but his impressive strides have raised an important question about his future role with the Dallas Stars. Is it as a winger or a center?
After the jump, we'll look at both sides of the argument and try to come up with an answer.....
First, the stats. Benn came in with a reputation as a scoring winger, but didn't immediately show up on the score sheet as often as we had hoped. Playing on a line with Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro early in the season, Benn talllied 8 points in his first ten games. On the surface, that's outstanding work from a rookie. But the frustrating part was his 3 goals for 25 shots, adding up to a mediocre 0.12% shot percentage. And while there's no statistical data to to back this up, we all remember how many times we screamed 'SHOOT THE PUCK JAMIE!' at our TVs.
But that could just be attributed to rookie jitters, trying not to make a mistake by being too risky. Which is fine. Especially since Benn continued racking up assists, collecting at least one point in nine of his first 14 career games. By the time of the Ribeiro injury, Benn's stat line looked like this:
|2009 - Jamie Benn||46
Not exactly the gaudy numbers he showed he's capable of in the Juniors, but pretty much what you'd expect from a rookie. The plus/minus was a concern, but typical from a player adjusting to playing defense in the big leagues for the first time. To be honest, I can't point out a notably egregious mistake by Benn. He hasn't had a 'Niskanen' moment I guess you'd say. But I digress.
But there still seemed to be a certain something missing from him offensively. Part of it was ice time, as his point production dwindled when he played around 19 minutes instead of 24. Part of it was that he was still averaging around 3 shots per game.
Whatever the reason, it wasn't anything spectacular.
Then came the move to center, and as expected, Benn struggled at first. In his first three games, Benn was pointless with a plus/minus of -3. He seemed lost at times on the ice, and more than once got hit hard coming across the middle. He looked incredibly out of place, like spaghetti in a Mexican restaurant. But then something clicked. Here are Benn's stats leading up to the Olympic break since his first game at center on Jan 14 at Montreal:
|2009 - Jamie Benn||15
Add in the fact that he had five goals in a five game stretch at one point, and you have some pretty remarkable numbers. Playing on a line with Jere Lehtinen and Brenden Morrow (and occasionally Steve Ott) gave him the veteran presence he needed to get comfortable with the new position. As his ice time steadily increased, so did his numbers and faceoff percentage.
Benn's growth at the position is pleasantly surprising, for sure. But it also brings up a very important question for the long-term.
Where does he play at in the future? Is he better off at center, or at the wing?
Currently the Stars have a glut of lefthanded wings. And Brenden Morrow, Loui Eriksson, James Neal and Steve Ott aren't going anywhere anytime soon. This would mean playing Benn out of position as a right winger, as they have most of this season. There is no terrible consequence for this, it just means he will have to continue getting used to playing on that side. On the other hand, the future at wing for the Stars is a bit crowded with prospects such as Scott Glennie and Tomas Vincour on a path to the big leagues.
But to move Benn to center permanently would be another matter entirely. Yes, he has shown great strides so far. But you are basically asking him to forget the instincts and skills he has developed as a winger and learn a new position from scratch, a risky move for a player with such youth and potential.
And there's the issue I see. We all know the potential and talent Jamie Benn has as a winger. But no one really knows the FULL extent of his potential as a center.
Either way, the Stars will have to make a decision internally soon. If the Stars see Benn as a future star winger in the making, then they will need to ease Benn back out of this experiment sooner rather than later for the sake of his development. If they see a move to center as a relief to a future log-jam at winger, then they need to invest in this move for good.
A lot of this decision depends on how the rest of his season plays out, so the issue will be clearer by the end of the year. Until then, it should be an interesting subplot to watch.