It seems like so long ago, a lifetime ago, that the Dallas Stars were beating the Los Angeles Kings in a tightly-contested game on national television on their way to solidifying their spot at the top of the Pacific Division. Things couldn't have been going much better for the Dallas Stars as they rolled into a Western Canadian road trip with high hopes and their sights set on the number one seed in the conference. If things went as planned, the Stars could have returned home as the first place team in the conference.
As we all know, things did not go as planned. After a win in Edmonton, the season began its slow disintegration with two blowout losses in Calgary and Vancouver. The Stars would momentarily fool us with a win against Edmonton, but the next game against Vancouver was the true start of the snowball that is picking up speed with no sign of stopping.
Since that game, we've seen the Dallas Stars regress to a point where the team is wholly unrecognizable to us fans. That win against Los Angeles was exactly one month ago, but it might as well have been a lifetime; a loss against Vancouver tomorrow night and in the space of less than 30 days the Stars would have gone from fighting for first in the conference to sitting on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
The loss against Vancouver at home on a Tuesday night was not just the start of a seven out of eight games lost -- it was the start of a rash of injuries that would cripple this team more than we ever thought possible. For in the middle of that 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Canucks, the Stars lost a second-year player who was on the verge of becoming a dominant force in the NHL.
We've joked about it before but now it's painfully clear: Jamie Benn was perhaps this team's most important player.
I understand what many of you are thinking. You're asking how a player like Brad Richards, Brenden Morrow or Kari Lehtonen isn't the most important player for the Stars, yet a third line forward in just his second season in the NHL -- one with just 13 goals and 33 points on the season -- can suddenly become the most important player on a team with so much scoring depth. Let me explain.
Just so you know, I could make this exact same argument with the most underrated player in the NHL: Loui Eriksson. For this post...we'll just stick to Jamie Benn.
When Jamie Benn was out at the start of the season with concussion-like symptoms, the Stars continued to find success and while we all wanted him back on the ice as soon as possible you couldn't exactly say he was "missed". This was before Benn took that proverbial "next step" as a hockey player and became one of the most dangerous two-way forwards the NHL has.
Over the course of this season, Benn has more than exceeded all expectations of what we'd hope to see from the next superstar in a Dallas jersey. While the goal scoring is certainly not at a production level that we'd want, it's impossible to deny the impact he's had on this team as he's grown as a hockey player, a teammate and a leader.
More importantly, he's developed the ability to be successful no matter what line he may be placed on. Before, Benn's impact was hinged on who he played with and who was able to put him in the best position to succeed. As this season progressed, however, we witnessed Benn take on the role of a player who made those around him better and provided the versatility and the leadership any playoff-bound team would love to have.
His ability to create scoring chances. to make the bone-jarring hit on a backcheck and to make game-changing plays right when the team needed it most was by far one of the key reasons the Stars were so successful before the Collapse In Canada. It fed the rest of the team and it Stars were able to build depth and balance with Benn's ability to play on any line and in any situation -- not just be on the ice but to make a positive impact as well.
It is this impact on the game that the Stars are sorely missing right now. While the loss of Brad Richards has undoubtedly crippled the Stars scoring ability during his absence, the Stars still had Richards for some of the most painful losses in recent memory. Without Benn, the Stars lacked the not only the offensive depth they had enjoyed for so long but they lacked a player who was insanely successful on the penalty kill and on the power play and who made a difference at all the right times.
More importantly, they lost a player whose leadership fed the rest of the team. It's impossible to say whether the Stars would have fallen apart like they have if Benn were still healthy, but it is painfully obvious that without Benn the Stars have lost a piece of the identity that made the team so successful.
Benn was the perfect example of what had made the Stars so fun to watch and what led to so many of their wins. He was a hard working player with good speed who forced the opposition into making mistakes and he was one of the best on the team in drawing penalties. He knew when the right time to fight was and he provided an emotional spark that cannot be measured by statistics.
The Dallas Stars, even when fully healthy, are likely not nearly as good as their record through 51 games would have you think. They were overachieving and were winning in ways that were unsustainable over the course of the season and were due to fall back to earth at some point. What is happening now, however, is that the pendulum has swung the other way and the team is now woefully underachieving; the Stars are much better than what we've seen the past few weeks.
Perhaps Jamie Benn provides more for the Stars than statistics or numbers could ever show. It's tough to argue with the numbers, however, as Jamie Benn's absence lines up directly with the worst offensive drought we've seen in Dallas in a very long time. Teams have been able to focus on the Richards line -- and now the Ribeiro line -- and if there is one thing we've found out about the Stars this season it's that this team will not win on the will of one player alone. The Stars lose and win as a team and Benn provided the balance and depth necessary for this to occur.
With Jamie Benn, the Stars lost their balance, their depth and the one player who could make a difference on the ice no matter who he was playing with. With the exception of Brad Richards, it's now apparent that Jamie Benn is the one of the few players the Stars could not afford to lose -- and now there's no sign of when he might return. In the meantime, the Stars must find a way to regain the swagger and confidence he provided when out on the ice and right now there's no sign of that returning anytime soon.