Much of the fanfare that existed before the start of the season has now faded. The Dallas Stars are struggling to put the puck in the net while dealing with roster and line combination fluctuations as well as the continued search for chemistry on a team that is desperately attempting to find out just what what sort of hockey team they want to be. While there are signs of a bright future ahead, the current struggles on the ice have paled nearly all optimistic or hopeful talk of the future -- at least for now.
At the heart of this sits Jamie Benn, the newly-minted cornerstone of the Dallas Stars franchise who missed five games while negotiating a new five-year contract worth $26.5 million and returned to the ice expected to be a returning hero. In four games since his return, Benn has just one assist and is a minus-2, getting increased time on the power play and penalty kill while playing nearly 21 minutes per game since his return.
There's no doubt that Benn now faces pressure unlike any he experienced in his first three NHL seasons, before he became the second-highest paid player and before he was officially made the "face of the franchise now and forever" as the cornerstone around which this team will be built.
It's clear that, at least through four games, that Benn is certainly feeling that pressure to perform. He's always put that pressure upon himself to do his best and it's a very rare day indeed when one can say that Benn isn't trying his hardest on the ice on every single shift. With the Stars missing a few top offensive performers in the four games since his return, Benn and his line have had the brunt of the of the offensive pressure placed upon their shoulders.
That, more than anything, appears to be the core issue. Jamie Benn, plain and simple, is trying way too hard.
Benn has always been a hard-charging player capable of creating offensive chances himself, through puck turnovers or deft stick handling or a deadly-accurate shot. The first two seasons of his career Benn was always a complimentary player on the wing who was able to cash in on the playmaking of his center or to use his hard play to nearly completely dominate both ends of the ice.
Since becoming a center, however, Benn has had to adjust his playing style. He's been asked to be much more defensively responsible and has been given relatively heavy defensive minutes under Glen Gulutzan, while also being asked to be more of a playmaker for those around him than just himself.
Benn has certainly grown into this new role as the top center for the Stars but there have also been signs that, at times, Benn attempts to do far too much on his own in an attempt to carry the offense or -- at the very least -- to try and spark the team.
On Saturday night against the Phoenix Coyotes, Jamie Benn was the best player on the ice for the Stars and the line of Benn, Brenden Morrow and Jaromir Jagr was the best line for the team. By far. Yet the Stars were still unable to find the back of the net and Benn has now gone four games without a goal while putting just five shots on goal in his first three games combined.
Against the Coyotes, Benn certainly pushed the most offense of any Stars player towards the net yet also simply tried to do way too much on his own. Too many times offensive chances created by great moves by Benn then fizzled when he took the play too far himself, instead of deferring to Jagr or Morrow. Despite the ultimate ineffectiveness of the attack the Stars were forced to rely on Benn more and more as the game progressed, with the center jumping on the ice every other shift as Glen Gulutzan searched for any sort of offensive production from his team.
It's tough to say that Benn has played poorly, because he hasn't. Far from it, in fact. In just four games, Benn has a relatively astronomical CORSI when compared to the rest of the team while facing tough competition with just a 47 percent start percentage in the offensive zone. The Stars had been asking the top line to not only play big minutes and create the offense but to do so against the top lines the opposition put on the ice.
Part of this has to do with the lack of offensive balance the Stars have been receiving with Derek Roy out, and now with Ray Whitney gone for at least four weeks. The Stars have yet to play a game with Roy and Benn on the roster at the same time and have yet to be able to provide the sort of offensive freedom that was promised when the Stars acquired Roy over the summer.
Benn and his line have struggled to find and create the open space needed in the offensive zone while also searching for chemistry between Benn and Jagr, which appeared to finally be growing in the latter stages of Saturday's loss. More than anything, Benn needs to find trust in his linemates and believe that the brunt of the full burden to produce does not fall on him and that the need to work together -- not just create amazing, highlight-reel plays -- is easily the most important yet difficult task ahead this season.
Now, Roy is back. The Stars have also chosen to significantly shake up the lines in an effort to find any sort of offensive attack that could actually produce tangible results. The hope is that such changes not only provide some actual secondary scoring for the Stars but also provides Benn a bit more freedom to showcase the offensive dominance that led to his long-term contract with the team and status as the face of the franchise moving into the future.
Benn has been good, very good at times, but that's not enough. The Dallas Stars need the team's best player to be unequivocally great -- and it needs to happen now.