It might seem like forever since the 2013-14 NHL season started, particularly since the Dallas Stars seem to have been sidelined for 2/3 of it, but it is still far too early to be making any real judgments about teams or individuals.
Yes, even if your name is Tomas Hertl, though people do get a pass for the string of marvelous Hertl Power jokes that have been out there the past few days. The more late-80s, early-90s-referencing punny headlines, the better.
But if we're to put much stock in the Stars short season-opening homestand as an indicator of larger storylines, then you'd be hard-pressed to find a better contender for Most Improved Player than Jordie Benn.
The elder Benn brother didn't receive much attention when he signed a three-year contract extension in the summer. In fact, many raised their eyebrows that the second and third years of the deal were one-way. After all, that's a large commitment for a guy with just half a lockout-shortened season in the NHL and no pedigree to suggest he will develop much further.
A graduate of the CHL who worked his way up the minor-pro ranks while baby brother Jamie Benn burst onto the scene in Dallas, Jordie Benn has never let things like that stop him before, and he certainly hasn't started at the start of this season. Two games is, obviously, a ridiculously small sample size, but there's been a notable improvement in Benn's game so far that shows up both via the eye test and stat sheet.
Through two games, Benn has averaged 17:15 a game and added an assist to his career totals. He and defensive partner Trevor Daley are also winning all the advanced statistical categories with some ridiculous Corsi numbers (though again, small sample size caveats go here). And while Lindy Ruff hasn't seemed to concentrate on line matching much yet, it is the Benn-Daley pairing - not Stephane Robidas and Brenden Dillon - that has started the highest percentage of their shifts in the defensive zone.
Perhaps above all else, Benn has demonstrated a much-improved composure level when things go wrong, as they always will at some point. Instead of getting flustered when the puck gets turned over and chasing out of position, Benn has been able to calmly recover and keep the play from spiraling out of control.
It looks like he's playing with much more confidence, and he admitted as much to Mark Stepneski for a recent profile.
"Last year, you cough up the puck a few times, you watch yourself on your shifts on TV and you learn from your mistakes. You just move on. I know it is just two games, but I feel a lot more confident."
While he is still playing the lowest ice time of the defensemen, it is only by a hair. Ruff has rotated the defensemen very evenly, with the top minute player, Alex Goligoski, averaging 21:26 minutes per game. Benn has also seen some time on the penalty kill as he expands his role in his own end.
He's also kept a solid hold on the sixth defenseman spot even though rookie Kevin Connauton is waiting in the wings for his Stars debut. Aaron Rome is still a little ways away from returning from his off-season hip surgery, though he has begun practicing with the team, but he will also have to make a very strong case to earn playing time over Benn.
All this is made even more impressive by the fact Benn is actually playing his off-side in the partnership with Daley. While that has been a problem for many defensemen over the years, Benn claims it's actually been an advantage for him so far.
"There might be a little bit of a difference, but I feel like I can see the ice better," Benn said. "I know where Dales is, and I can see him all the time and we can make plays. I guess I am more comfortable on that side."
Just in case you didn't pick this up yet, it's still extremely early to be drawing long-term conclusions, especially when relying on statistical metrics. But it's the combination of statistics and simple observation that has so many much more optimistic about Benn's play than they were just a week ago.
The big-picture side effect may be that the Stars really do have eight legitimate options for their defense each night, assuming everyone stays healthy, as well as eight defensemen that they don't want to send through waivers at risk of losing them for nothing.
The team has indicated that, at least for the short term, they plan to carry eight defensemen along with 13 forwards. When Rome comes off injured reserve, they will likely make a move to demote either Chris Mueller or Lane MacDermid to the Texas Stars.
But even when those tough decisions come, having another defenseman such as Jordie Benn playing well can only be a good thing.