GLENDALE, AZ - MARCH 01: Jamie Benn #14 of the Dallas Stars skates with the puck past Keith Yandle #3 of the Phoenix Coyotes during the first period of the NHL game at Jobing.com Arena on March 1, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
This has been a season of many ups and downs for Dallas Stars fans, perhaps the most stressful season I've ever been through since the Stars came to Dallas in 1993. What began as a miraculous start to a season that was supposed to be forgettable for the Dallas Stars has now become a frantic effort just to make the playoffs after nearly three straight months of leading the division. The Stars collapse in February was one many of us feared was coming, yet nobody dared to think it would have been that bad; now, fans will be happy just to make the postseason after expectations had been raised much, much higher.
Overshadowing the drama on the ice has been the darkened cloud of an uncertain ownership situation and either the impending trade of Brad Richards or the impending departure of Richards through free agency. The Stars have fought to maintain focus amidst a neverending list of distractions and for a while there it seemed the team had lost all sense of itself on the ice, forgetting just what it was that made the Stars so fun to watch and so successful before February.
Suddenly, the past four games and the past two weeks has the season on an upswing and fans feeling like after a month of despair there is certainly hope. Even without Brad Richards, the Stars are back to their old selves and displaying the hunger and determination that defined the first half of the season -- along with the return of the magic that led to so many wins.
While there are good reasons for the resurgence of the Stars' success, namely the return of Krys Barch, Toby Petersen and Adam Burish, it's no coincidence that the Stars suddenly looked like their old selves once Jamie Benn was back on the ice.
These past two weeks, Benn has suddenly displayed the potential that we knew had been there all along. There have been flashes of brilliance along the way and we've all marveled at just how talented Benn can be in all areas of the ice, but it wasn't until he returned from a month-long injury that Benn finally proved to us all that he has the ability to not just be the best player on a talented Stars team but one of the best players in the Western Conference.
If you do nothing but judge Jamie Benn by his statistics alone, then you'll have trouble understanding why he has become such a dominant force on the ice. In 50 games, Benn has 14 goals and 35 points and is a minus-4 on the season. It's very easy to say that Benn is nothing more than an average player whose points-per-game total has improved this season yet he is still very far from the dynamic offensive force that is usually associated with the best players in the NHL.
For most of this season, before his injury on January 24, it seemed as though Benn was always on the verge of breaking out offensively and taking the NHL by storm. He would have a highlight-reel goal here and there, a great performance from game to game, but for some reason the offensive explosion never came. In January, Benn actually enjoyed the best five-game stretch of his young career, with four goals, four assists and and plus-six rating over those games. Benn was instrumental in that crucial stretch of games for the Stars and we were all wondering if this was the next step we had all been waiting for Benn to take.
We were all anticipating Jamie Benn becoming one of the most electric offensive players in the league. While we were waiting, Jamie Benn developed into one of the best all-around players in the NHL and is suddenly the key to the success of the Stars for the rest of the season.
Jamie Benn's return to the ice after missing a month with a shoulder injury was absolutely electric. He was a player that was shot out of a cannon and his energy, aggression and physicality in both ends of the ice clearly inspired the rest of the team around him. The Stars lost his first game back, despite a very solid performance, and have since won three straight games and have the chance at redeeming themselves after the worst month of hockey imaginable.
The Stars were back to playing the way we knew they could and leading the way was a 21-year old phenom with a quiet personality who was suddenly, without question, the best player in that game every time he stepped onto the ice. It's been a very long time since the Stars have a had a player with such an impact on the game every single shift and Benn's performance has been instrumental in the resurrection of a season we once thought was lost.
What has been most amazing is that despite playing the best hockey of his young career, Benn has just a goal and an assist in those four games.
Benn's impact on the Stars now extends well beyond whatever he provides on the scoreboard. Benn has always been one of the hardest-working players for the Stars and we've always been impressed with his abilities not just on offense but playing defense as well. Yet the past two weeks, Benn has raised his game to a lever no one ever thought possible. Every single shift that Benn is on the ice, he dominates the play. He's the best player for either team and no matter what the opposition may try Benn has simply been better. He's too strong on the forecheck, he's magical with the puck on his stick and for the first time in his career he's putting the puck on net consistently.
What's been most amazing, however, is how he is suddenly making those around him better. The true mark of the value of any player in any sport isn't how great they are individually, but how they impact their teammates and how they are somehow able to raise the level of play of those around them. Jamie Benn possesses this ability and the Stars are certainly taking advantage.
Jamie Benn isn't just playing with one line. He isn't even playing with two lines. Jamie Benn is playing with nearly every single line combination that Crawford can think of, in nearly every single situation in the game.
Against the Phoenix Coyotes, Benn led all forwards with 33 shifts for nearly 23 minutes of ice time. He was on the ice during that time with 16 completely different line combinations and was on the ice for 27 of 64 total faceoffs in the game.
The Stars are leaning very heavily on Jamie Benn right now and he's responding exactly how you would hope and expect: he's getting better and better. The Coyotes game might be the best game of his career, despite just tallying one goal (although it was one monumental goal). What we witnessed was a player that was at a completely different level those around him; he was faster, he was stronger, he was hungrier and he wanted it more. He's creating offense as the Stars top center while also playing on the wing for several other line combinations during the game.
The Stars had a great game because Jamie Benn had a great game. His performance feeds the entire team and while there are certainly other players that have raised their games lately, Benn has gone to another level altogether.
When the Stars were going through the slump in February, not only losing but looking like a team that is completely lost both physically and mentally, we wondered just how important Jamie Benn was to this team. Many cited that Brad Richards was without a doubt the most important and valuable player for the Stars and there is no doubt that he is one of the best offensive players in the NHL. Yet Richards has never had the sort of impact that Jamie Benn has had on the Dallas Stars, and Benn is suddenly rising to a level I doubt many thought possible. He's the best player on the Stars and he's been the best player on the ice no matter who the Stars might be playing.
The only question is whether Benn has the ability and stamina to keep this up. While it's great to have a player that is so dynamic with any line combination Crawford can imagine, you have to think that even Benn can't hold up being double shifted every single game. The Stars need Richards to return to provide balance once more to the lineup, which would also mean that we're likely to see Benn placed back on one line and kept there. That extra energy, one would hope, would allow Benn to not just be the best player on the ice but to provide the offensive domination -- both on the ice and on the scoreboard -- that will truly take him to the next level.