Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
The Stars are not playing very well lately. Neither is Jamie Benn. That's not a coincidence.
Let's keep this simple.
The Dallas Stars need Jamie Benn to be better. Much better.
The star center, recently signed to a five-year contract after sitting out the first two weeks of the season, is currently working through what we could easily classify as the roughest stretch of his young career. Not surprisingly, the Stars have struggled mightily along with him.
Since scoring a clutch third period goal against the San Jose Sharks on Feb. 23, Jamie Benn's season has taken a notable turn for the worst. In the seven games since, Benn has just four assists and is a minus-10 as the top line became increasingly deficient in their own zone while struggling to find any rhythm on offense.
Benn and Jaromir Jagr have been split up, and once again the lines have been shuffled as coach Glen Gulutzan searches for the same offensive output of just a few weeks.
Since that San Jose game, the Stars are 3-4-2 and now have scored just three goals in their past four games. To be fair to Benn, the center missed two of those contests with a wrist injury, so he can't be held liable for each bad game of the past few weeks.
It's undeniable, however, that as Jamie Benn goes so go the Dallas Stars.
After that Sharks win, Benn was suddenly touted as the captain-in-waiting, a player who was ready to take the next step as a leader in the locker and propel the Stars into the future. Since that game, Benn has looking increasingly ineffective on the ice and not only has zero goals in his past seven games but has just four shots on goal in his past four games.
In 13:22 of ice time against the Blackhawks, Benn failed to register a shot.
Perhaps this is one of those defining moments in a players' career. Benn has never been one to speak out about himself or the team, although that has certainly started to change this season. After Saturday's 8-1 decimation at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, Benn was perhaps as honest as we've seen him yet as he abandoned the now-familiar cliches for one of the more famous quotes of the NHL season:
"We s*** on our first goalie and we s*** on our second," said Benn when asked about the loss. "We left them hanging out to dry and it's unacceptable. We need to do something within this room to change that. It's an unacceptable effort tonight."
Benn also didn't want to hear anything about the tough schedule, which might have led to an energy issue with the team.
"I think you can just use that as an excuse," said Benn. "We all have the same schedule as out here. It's doing what you can to prepare for a game, we're all professionals so we have got to find that energy out here. These guys gave us a wakeup call here tonight."
If there is one thing that has been discussed endlessly about the Dallas Stars the past few years, it is accountability in the locker room. Too many times the Stars have failed to adequately respond to adversity, either within a game or after, and too many times has poor play gone unpunished. Benn spoke of the team needing to address the debacle on Saturday and perhaps seeing the team's best player so honest -- for him at least -- is just the start of what many were calling a wake-up call for a team running out of time and options on the season.
It's tough to say what has led to the struggle, whether that's a lack of chemistry with Jagr or just one of those slumps players sometimes fall victim to during the course of a season. Benn has certainly had stretches of low offense before in his career, although never paired with the defensive liability we've witnessed recently.
As much as I would to come up with a quantifiable reason for Benn's struggles, it seems to be as simple as "the fire just isn't burning as hot."
There's a reason Benn is so good and received the hefty payday he did, and it's not solely because he's one of the more accurate shooters in the NHL. Benn can be a physical wrecking force on the ice, dominant in both zones and able to completely take over a game when he really wants to.
Perhaps separating Benn from Jagr is what was needed, although the first true test of this split resulted in a seven-goal loss to the Blackhawks. Yet there is something to be said that the two power forwards, who both play a similar style, just never found the right chemistry together while their overall talent was enough to at least produce points. For a good while that combination worked well.
Now the Stars have moved Loui Eriksson back to Benn's wing and Ray Whitney to his left. Benn and Eriksson enjoyed some incredible success -- both offensively and defensively -- last season before their split was necessitated by team needs; now the team needs the pair to regain that magic. Perhaps Eriksson's strong play of late can help Benn pull out of his funk, especially with Whitney able to play set-up man from the wing.
"It's a bounce back game for us," said Benn on Monday, regarding Monday's game against the Calgary Flames. "We need forget about it. It's a new day today. It's a big game tonight. On the bright side, we are only three points out of the playoffs. We're still right in here. There are still a big two points on the line tonight and we have to go get them."
The Stars aren't about to throw in the towel after Saturday's embarrassing loss, but the true test will be how they respond tonight against the Flames. The team needs its best player to lead that charge, for Benn to be the one leading an energetic and aggressive attack against Calgary and to back up his words of the past few days.
Benn took a big step forward with his honesty after the Chicago loss. Now it's time to take the next step and follow up on them.