The Dallas Stars have had some offensive issues this season, somewhat expected with the loss of Brad Richards and with the Stars attempting to build a team with a below-average payroll. With Glen Gulutzan coming in as coach, the goal was to create a defense-oriented team that focuses on building from the net out, with emphasis on counter attack and sustained forechecking on offense.
The Stars were never expected to be an offensive powerhouse this season, although there was an expectation that we would see two players -- Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson -- continue to build their careers towards being the nucleus of this team going forward.
For the first month of the season, this was certainly playing out. Eriksson and Benn, together with Michael Ryder, exploded offensively and catapulted this team to a 11-3-0 record...with some help from Kari Lehtonen along the way. Both Benn and Eriksson then went into an extended offensive slump that coincided with a disastrous November, with the Stars struggling offensively without their top line producing.
Now, the pair have pulled out of their slump somewhat with a four-game point streak and with increasingly better results on offense. Yet for Dallas Stars fans, it's apparent that something is certainly missing from this team and it's been there for most of the season -- a consistently dominant Jamie Benn, the guy who many feel the future of this team is being built around.
So how can the Dallas Stars help propel Jamie Benn back into the level of play we've seen from him before? Perhaps center isn't the right position for him at the moment...
Jamie Benn was drafted and came into the NHL as a winger. A natural left wing, he played at right wing his rookie and sophomore seasons and enjoyed tremendous success at both positions. Prior to last year, we learned that the Stars were looking to convert the dynamic forward to center, perhaps in an attempt to further take advantage of his playmaking and defensive skills.
Currently, Benn is on pace for 52 assists and 72 points if he plays all 82 games. Certainly a respectable number for just a third-year forward, and one who has suddenly been thrust into the top line center position a bit ahead of schedule.
There is an immense amount of pressure on Benn, especially with the Stars in desperate need of making the postseason. At times it's seemed as though the responsibilities of being a playmaking forward with Eriksson and Ryder, as well as the defensive responsibilities of being a center, have hindered his natural goal-scoring ability.
Jamie Benn, at his very best, is a player that can take control of a game all by himself. We witnessed this on many occasions last season and it gave us hope for a future that the Stars had found a superstar in the making, a player this franchise could stake their future to and build around.
What's amazing is that while Benn leads the team in points and assists, we've yet to see him truly enter the "beast mode" we know so well and love. There have been flashes (the goal against Columbus, for example) but for the most part he's been a steady, in not unspectacular top forward for the Dallas Stars. Between Benn and Eriksson, the two account for the best +/- of all the forwards and are rarely outchanced by the opposition at even strength. That's not something to scoff at for the top line, who is routinely up against the best the opposition has to offer.
For Jamie Benn -- and perhaps this is far from fair -- this isn't enough. The Dallas Stars desperately need that dynamic, dominant forward who could take over a game offensively and defensively and lead this team to wins night after night. While he is consistently improving as a center and in the faceoff circle, it's been apparent on several occasions that while he's good enough of a hockey player to be good at center...the Dallas Stars need for Benn to be outstanding, no matter what position he's playing.
It seems that what Benn really needs, perhaps just temporarily, is to be able to slide back to the wing. This would allow Benn to focus solely on his own offense and playmaking and not have the responsibilities of center weighing on his mind. Between defensive and faceoff responsibilities, Benn is also having to focus on his playmaking for the two wingers on his line -- Eriksson and Ryder are both natural finishers, while Eriksson has tremendous playmaking abilities of his own.
Jamie Benn, throughout his career, has never been labeled a "playmaker". In the juniors, Benn had 121 goals and and 91 assists -- an obvious sign of his incredible ability to score goals at an incredible pace. Through his first two seasons, Benn's playmaking ability increased although most of that also had to do with who he was playing against. In two season in the NHL, Benn had 44 goals and 53 assists; not bad for a former fifth-round draft pick.
This season, Benn is on pace for just 20 goals...but is also on pace for 52 assists. It's an incredible turnaround in the dynamics of his offense and while those numbers are certainly impressive, they're more "Mike Ribeiro" than "Jamie Benn" and perhaps a bit too indicative of how much different his role is with the team this season.
In a perfect world, Benn would be able to slide over to wing and the Stars would have a center they could put on his line. In reality, the necessity that led to the Stars moving Benn to center in the first place is perhaps the exact same reason this won't work.
The Stars have found a balance in their top three lines that they seem set on, at least for now. Steve Ott, along with Mike Ribeiro and a revitalized Brenden Morrow, is enjoying growing success on the second line. Ideally, Ott would be the candidate to slide into that top center line and put Ribeiro back as the full time center between Morrow and Ryder. As we witnessed earlier this season, Ribeiro has struggled to maintain defensive responsibility without Ott -- who also provides an incredible ability to win faceoffs for that second line.
Unfortunately, it seems as though being able to move Benn to the wing isn't going to easily happen any time soon. With Benn and Eriksson still leading the team in points, it's also unlikely that Gultuzan and Nieuwendyk see it as a necessity and instead feel that Benn will continue to learn and grow as a center and will eventually find his groove.
The problem here is that while the Stars are pushing Benn further along his development as a center, the Stars are still searching for some offensive balance. Benn and Eriksson are seeing the best the other team has to offer night after night and it's been a struggle at times for Benn to find the space he needs to really let his offensive creativity to shine. The fact that Benn is also shooting a career-low 8.2% is indicative of just how much this season has been a struggle for him to score consistently.
Jamie Benn is a long way from being the player he has the potential to be and perhaps it's that obvious potential that has some fans worried and concerned. Before this season, it was undeniable that many felt he was the future of this franchise but seeing his struggles at times this season in that role has been frustrating at best.
It's unfair, however, to truly judge Benn at this point in his career. He's a steady, hard working player who plays the game the right way and while there have been struggles, he is still this team's leading scorer. What the Stars need, however, is for Benn to find a way to take that next step and once again be that dominant forward we know he can be -- whether it's at wing or center.