There's a simple question that the Dallas Stars front office must answer for themselves as they enter the free agency period this summer, one that will shape just what direction they decide to take. With the Stars willing to do what it takes to fill out the holes on this roster -- and there are a few -- the big debate is over exactly which holes are more important than others, since fixing the Dallas Stars is going to take more than just one free agency period with a pool that consists of underwhelming talent overall.
Jamie Benn, the acknowledged cornerstone of the Dallas Stars franchise and the player who has been picked to lead the team forward under this new regime, has played three seasons in the NHL and has shown tremendous growth and improvement in each season. It was Benn's second season where it became clear that a special talent had come to Dallas, as he showed the ability to dominate the ice and entire games for weeks at a time and when injuries hit the team, coach Marc Crawford leaned heavily on his star winger.
Yet Benn was already in a transition of sorts that season, splitting time between center and wing as injury and roster depth necessitated. When Brad Richards departed for New York and the Stars financial situation prevented the acquisition of a top-six center to replace him, Benn was suddenly thrust into the role of the top center on the Dallas Stars -- despite barely playing the position for most of his career.
Now that Tom Gaglardi has the ownership situation of the Stars resolved and the financial limitations on the team lifted, there is a contingent of fans and media that believe the Stars should attempt to find a top-six center that would allow Benn to slide back to his natural position at wing -- unleashing the offensive aggression and firepower that many felt was stifled while playing center this past season.
With Glen Gulutzan apparently in favor of this idea as well, the question now becomes where Jamie Benn's best value lies: as a center or as a winger?
Over three seasons we've come to know two different versions of Jamie Benn. Under Marc Crawford, during Benn's first two seasons, he played under-the-radar a bit on the Stars second and third line and split time between center and winger -- primarily playing on the wing. Benn saw time on the power play yet really made his mark on the penalty kill, showcasing not only good defensive skill and anticipation but also the ability to push the puck in the other direction and create multiple shorthanded opportunities.
On the wing, Benn is a bulldozer. Sometimes it was as if we were watching a pit bull unleashed upon the opposition, whose sole responsibility was to create and wreak havoc on those unfortunate enough to be playing on the opposite ends of the ice. He still plays with great authority in the defensive zone and proved to be one of the better and more aggressive backcheckers on the team, instantly proving he was to become one of the better two-way players in the NHL.
It was that offensive potential that has had so many salivating, however. In relatively limited minutes between the second and third lines in 2010-11, Benn put up 56 points in 69 games and was on a point-per-game pace the final half of the season after he returned from injury. Last summer, when Richards' departure became inevitable, Stars fans were enamored with the idea of Benn receiving top minutes with better linemates and what that meant for his potential production moving forward.
It was clear during that 10-11 season and especially last summer that the Dallas Stars were looking at Jamie Benn to become their next star center. With depth at the position lacking in the system and the team unable to pursue top-six centers in free agency, Benn was moved to the position by necessity but also because of the potential he could bring in such a role. High-scoring wingers are one thing, but a center capable of putting up 70+ points while playing tough defensive minutes are players that come highly-coveted in the NHL.
Last season, Benn played 71 games at center for the Dallas Stars. While there were flashes of brilliance and sustained offensive production, it seems that there was some overall disappointment in the lack of offensive production by the best player on the team. Where much of the frustration came into play was during those final months, when Benn was used in a shutdown role on a glorified checking line so that Dallas could play Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder is the easiest minutes coaches could give them. This stifled Benn's offense and created frustration over what appeared to be a "waste" of who many feel to be potentially one of the most dynamic offensive players in the NHL.
What is interesting, however, is that even in this alternate role compared to the previous season, Benn still showed improvement offensively -- despite playing the toughest minutes of any forward on the team. Benn's point-per-game total rose from 0.81 in 2010-11 to 0.89 in 2011-12 and had he played 82 games, it's likely Benn would have eclipsed that 70-point mark. The notion that Benn's offensive aggression and output were stifled by this new role also fails to hold up, considering Benn produced more shots on goal, more goals and more assists per game than he did his first two seasons. Benn also handed out more hits in 2011-12, 139 total hits compared to the 124 hits in 2010-11.
What's really interesting about those numbers is that Benn's TOI per game was essentially the same, at 18 minutes on average both in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
It seems the true difference in Benn's offensive production and potential lies in who he has with him on the ice. While playing with Loui Eriksson and Michael Ryder, Benn and his wings produced at an incredible clip and showed the ability to be one of the most lethal combinations in the NHL. Yet the lack of depth at forward forced the Stars to make significant changes and drastically changing the role Benn would have to play.
The Stars lack of a true checking line is what truly affected Benn, as he was forced to play in that role the second half of the season when it became clear that the Fiddler line struggled in that position and Mike Ribeiro and his line needed drastically easy minutes in order to be somewhat effective. This left the best player on the Dallas Stars playing a checking role against the top lines of San Jose, Los Angeles, Calgary and Vancouver in the most important games of the season -- and the rest of the Stars struggled to make up for the lack of offensive production that resulted from this altered role.
Here's where the encouraging part comes in, however. Despite the increased defensive role against extremely tough competition, Benn was still one of the most effective offensive players at even strength in the NHL. From Jeff Angus' article on Benn from earlier this week, it was noted that of the top three players in even-strength point production in the NHL, Jamie Benn by far played the toughest minutes.
Essentially what this shows us is that despite playing top defensive minutes with checking-line wingers in Adam Burish and Steve Ott, Benn was perhaps the most effective offensive player in the NHL at even-strength. It's an incredible notion to consider, especially when we think back to the wingers that Benn was on the ice with for most of the second half of the season.
It's clear that Jamie Benn can indeed be an extremely effective center in the NHL, one capable of playing tough defensive minutes while producing at a rate comparable to the best offensive players in the NHL. Of all the top-producing forwards in the NHL last year, Benn played some of the toughest minutes against the toughest competition while using checking-line players on his wing. A lack of depth necessitated this role, therefore it should be surmised that improving depth at forward is what the Stars should be attempting -- not moving Benn back to the wing.
If the Stars are able to land one or two top-six wingers, allowing players like Steve Ott and Brenden Morrow to play roles much more suited to their abilities on a true checking line, then in theory this opens up the possibility for Jamie Benn to play better minutes with much more talented offensive players on his wing. We witnessed this potential when Benn briefly played with Eriksson and Ryder and if the Stars are able to find such talent on the wings this summer, then the potential for Benn to continue to grow into one of the best centers in the NHL increases substantially.