One subject that everyone seems to ask me about lately is Jamie Benn, and how exactly he stacks up to Mike Modano. I've been asked if it's fair to compare the two, if I think Benn can fill the shoes, and if I think Benn could put up the same kind of numbers over his career. These are all different wants of asking the same questions, really, and the answer isn't exactly as cut and dry as most would hope.
Before comparing the two players, it's best to answer if indeed it is fair to do so. The way I look at it, all is fair in sports fandom. It simply comes with the territory. Jamie Benn isn't the first athlete to be scrutinized and compared to the ghosts of franchise history. It's simply human nature to try and compare someone new to someone you're already familiar with. It happens in all sports at every level.
Sidney Crosby, Eric Lindros, and Alexandre Daigle were all the next Wayne Gretzky at one point in time. Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and Lebron James were all the next Michael Jordan. Steve Young had to live up to Joe Montana's legend, and Aaron Rodgers had to fill Brett Favre's shoes. I'm sure the young stud quarterback for your local high school football team is still compared to the great athletes that led your alma mater to State in the 1980's. It's silly, but it's a fair topic of discussion, simply because that's what fans do.
The tricky part with Benn and Modano is that Mike Modano was so much more to this team than a first line center. To compare these two athletes, you have to look at everything they bring to the table, both on and off the ice. In Mike Modano's case, that is where the bar is set highest. Mike wasn't just the best player on the team and face of the franchise for twenty years. He was also an ambassador and a salesman, familiarizing a new fanbase with the world of NHL hockey, and becoming synonymous with the Dallas Stars in the process.
On the ice, the comparisons become a bit more clear cut. They're both big bodied, home-grown draft picks, playing the same position for the same franchise. Their styles may differ, but at least there are tangible stats you can view to get an idea of where they rank amongst their peers and track performance from there. Jamie's sample size is much smaller than Mike's, however. Given that the most impressive attribute of Modano's game is longevity and consistency over a long period of time, that's where the comparisons get even muddier.
When the Minnesota North Stars moved to Texas, they had a leg up on the competition. If Dallas hadn't gotten the Stars through relocation, they likely would have gotten one of the many upcoming expansion teams instead. Whether or not those start-up franchises would have had the staying power as the Dallas Stars is certainly debatable. In order for a franchise to be viable, it has to be profitable. In order for it to be profitable, it has to be popular.
Having a ready-made franchise, with established chemistry, management, and identity went a long way in selling the sport to this non-traditional market. Front and center in this regard was budding young superstar Mike Modano. He was everything you'd want to sell the sport to the State of Texas. He was glamorous, out-going, attractive, flashy, and out-spoken. In an era of Dallas Cowboys names ending up on police blotters as often as they did Pro-Bowl rosters, it didn't hurt that Mike was also a model citizen... and an American.
Would Sergei Fedorov, Teemu Selanne, or Peter Forsberg been able to capture the attention and adoration of a bunch of disinterested Texans? It's hard to tell, but there's no denying that Mike Modano seemed tailor made for the City of Dallas. Granted, Jamie Benn's home province of British Columbia isn't exactly Siberia or Japan or Jolly Old England, in terms of culture shock... but there's just something about being able to cheer for your team's superstar in both domestic and international competition. Jamie is ours now, but when push comes to shove, he dons the red and black of Canada, and will probably end up breaking our hearts in the process.
The climate has changed, however. We're not discussing if Jamie Benn would have been able to sell the sport to an uninitiated group of sports fans at Reunion Arena almost 20 years ago. That said, Jamie Benn is in a surprisingly similar situation, all things considered. Interest in the Dallas Stars is at an all-time low right now. Wednesday morning, FOX4's coverage of the Stars loss to the Phoenix Coyotes claimed just about as much air time as the pre-commercial-break teaser. "The Stars played, they lost, they'll play again tomorrow night."
Like it or not, Jamie Benn is the new face of the franchise, and it's on his shoulders to help sell this team to the city of Dallas all over again. It's on his shoulders to make this team relevant again, and I honestly think he is on the right track to doing so. We got to see a glimpse of his personality at the NHL's All-Star weekend in Ottawa, where he took home the accuracy shooting honors as the feel good story of the weekend, after being selected second to last in the draft, and overcoming an emergency appendectomy.
His personality, while understated, might actually be exactly what the doctor ordered. Fan favorites Mike Modano and Brett Hull have occasionally worn on fans for not knowing exactly when to keep quiet. Jamie Benn is the loveable humble underdog that sports fans love to gravitate towards. He was drafted 129th overall, compared to Modano's 1st overall. He is shy, quiet, polite, and workmanlike. Some think Benn needs to break out of his shell a little to attract fans, but I think the onus should be on the Stars for putting Benn out there as he is.
There's something very endearing and genuine about the guy and his story, and I think he can sell the sport without resorting to changing who he is or how he acts. Not every beloved Dallas athlete has to be on a level of Michael Irvin or give humorously over-the-top politically incorrect interview answers to endear themselves to the fanbase. Of course winning will be paramount to any long term success of the team, as well as Jamie Benn's legacy, but the same was true in Modano's time.
The first step to putting a winning product on the ice is production from their young core, including Jamie Benn and [The Next Jere Lehtinen?] Loui Eriksson. If Jamie Benn is going to match the level of clout within this organization that Mike Modano enjoys, he is going to have to walk the walk even if he chooses not to talk all the talk. What makes this comparison less cut-and-dry is the atmosphere of the game itself. When Mike Modano came into the league, some teams were still playing a brand of firewagon hockey that was capable of turning solid offensive players into 100 point dynamos. Scoring was up, defense was down.
Things leveled out a bit as he got older, and the league entered what some call the "Dead Puck Era," which is where Modano had the most team success, despite seeing his numbers slip. Mike Modano had his peak offensive seasons in 1992-1994, as he scored 93 points in both the final season in Minnesota and the first season in Dallas. He also notched 50 goals in 1993-94 for high career high. Interestingly enough, that was when Mike was old as Jamie Benn is right now.
The easy comparison would then be to mention that Jamie Benn is nowhere close to a 93 point pace, or a 50 goal pace, thus giving Modano the easy victory in regards to on-ice performance... but this is where the eras make it tricky. Every single player in the top 10 of scoring in 1992-93 had over 120 points. Compare that to the league that Jamie Benn is playing in, where last season only Daniel Sedin had over 100, and 10th place was our own Brad Richards with a relatively paltry 77.
Mike Modano's peak offensive season, he wasn't even in the league's top 20 points-per-game like Jamie Benn currently is for the Dallas Stars. This isn't to diminish what Mike Modano did for the Dallas Stars, which can't be measured. It's just to level the playing field and remind everyone that Jamie Benn is playing in an era of extensive coaching, elaborate systems, and not a whole lot of offensive output, proving the disparity in point totals between Modano and Benn isn't quite as large as they look to the naked eye.
Is it possible that Jamie Benn catches up to Mike Modano's offensive numbers with time? Absolutely. Does it really matter? I don't think so. Mike Modano isn't remembered for scoring over 1,300 points and 561 goals. He's remembered for being the face of the franchise during the most success years this team has ever had, and you better believe Jamie Benn has an opportunity to match that over the next 15+ years.
It's only natural to compare one franchise player to another, regardless of how fair it is to heap expectations on the shoulders of a young kid trying to carve his own niche. So to answer the question, is Jamie Benn the next Mike Modano? No. He is the first Jamie Benn, and he has the rest of his career to prove that that's exactly what the Stars need right now. Mike Modano's time is over, and Jamie Benn's time has just begun.
Rather than worrying about how one franchise player stacks up against the other, lets just be grateful to have another one to watch. The sky is the limit for Jamie Benn, so lets not place a ceiling or a floor around him.
Also, remember to send in your questions to Defending Big D for next week's Mailbag.
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