Dallas Stars fans were anxious before the lockout began back in September, worried in the two weeks leading up to the start of the season and now are downright frustrated with each game that passes without a Jamie Benn contract. The Stars have now played twice without Benn on the roster, a roster that was completely remade in the offseason primarily to be rebuilt around Benn as the de facto No. 1 center and face of the franchise for the team moving forward.
Without Benn, it's painfully clear that the Stars are lacking true firepower and depth up the middle -- at least for the moment. Dallas has a few good center prospects coming up through the system, although Radek Faksa and Emil Molin are still at least a few seasons away from really pushing for NHL time. In the interim, the Stars have been playing Tom Wandell on the second line in an experiment that seems to have ended after just two games -- Cody Eakin is expected to play tonight as the No. 2 center.
So where, exactly, are the Dallas Stars and Jamie Benn and how close are we to seeing him back on the ice for Dallas? Apparently, fairly close.
On NHL Network today, hockey insider -- perhaps one of two true insiders that actually exist -- Bob McKenzie reportedly stated that the Stars and Benn are just a few hundred thousand dollars apart on what appears to be a five-year contract. McKenzie also stated that he expects Benn and the Stars to reach a deal much sooner than PK Subban or Ryan O'Reilly, a sentiment that was echoed by Elliotte Freidman today on his 30 Thoughts article:
Benn is eligible for salary arbitration next summer and Skinner's contract would be a comparable. Dallas doesn't want to go that high unless UFA years are involved. You can certainly find some similar players making less, but the largest contracts usually become the flashpoints. So there's a philosophical difference, but you don't get the sense there is a personal one, unlike his unsigned brethren.
It's important to remember that these are negotiations that would have come down to the wire in a normal season without the lockout and new CBA to complicate matters. If the season had begun on time last October, I was fully prepared for Benn to miss training camp and possibly not sign right up until when the start of the season was looming. The situation with Benn is just too unique with several high-profile comparables for this to have gone easy.
What's important is that fans need to try and keep their emotions away from this situation. As the start of the season approached, and as Benn missed the home opener in Dallas, there were some very angry sentiments being unleashed at either the Stars, Benn, or both.
By all accounts, Jamie Benn and general manager Joe Nieuwendyk have a great relationship. Benn is a great teammate who is very good in the locker room, a player that works hard on and off the ice, and who has basically done anything asked of him by his coaches without complaint. The Stars have also made it clear, through the team's actions and through their words, that this is Jamie Benn's team now and he's the centerpiece for the Stars moving forward.
This is why Benn and his agent have been fighting for the absolute top value they feel Benn is worth. I still feel that direct comparables are tough in this situation because of Benn's unique status in regards to his current age and impending free agency, but Jeff Skinner's six-year contract extension certainly seems to be what is being referenced most. Is Benn more valuable to the Stars than Skinner is to the Carolina Hurricanes? At this point, it's tough to say that Benn's value isn't significantly higher -- and Skinner will be earning $5.725 million a season against the cap with his deal.
Ultimately, I'm expecting to hear that the Stars and Jamie Benn have agreed on a five-year, $33-$35 million contract -- and I expect that news to come sometime in the next few days (I could be wrong, but it's just a guess). There has been a sentiment that the two sides have been close to a deal for a few days now, so McKenzie's assertion that they are just a few hundred thousand apart makes sense.
The cap hit is also likely more than Stars fans -- and the team -- were really prepared to see forked over. There have been calls for "pay him whatever he wants" but there is a point that no longer makes sense for the Stars -- there is going to come a time in the near future where the Stars will suddenly be tight against the cap once more. This is why negotiations have carried over into the season -- it's just not as simple as getting him locked up for whatever is being requested.
The Dallas Stars, however, will have to pay a premium to lock him up for the longer contract the team desires. Benn's camp has reportedly been looking for a 3-4 year deal, while the Stars want longer -- paying for those years that eat into free agency will come at a premium.
There's also the fact that this contract is basically going to be seen as the baseline for the market for these types of deals moving forward.
Jamie Benn should be playing for the Stars by this weekend. If that doesn't happen, if a deal is still not reached, then something has gone drastically wrong somewhere.