Is Jamie Benn ready to take the next step forward? The answer to that question may very well determine the fate of the Dallas Stars season.
Benn had about the least ideal offseason going into 2012-13 as can be imagined. The lockout sapped away the first half of the season, and a prolonged contract negotiation kept Benn off the ice for training camp and the first five games. Even when he got on the ice, he never quite looked settled in, battling a wrist injury over the last half of the season that sapped some of the snap from his shot.
Even so, his numbers continued to improve as they have every year since he entered the NHL. Benn's 12 goals and 21 assists gave him a career-high average of 0.8 points per game, second on the Stars only to Ray Whitney's 0.9. And Benn did that while playing out of position as a center and with a snake-bit Loui Eriksson on his wing.
The Stars will need even more from their newly minted captain this year.
With a bit of a jury-rigged defense, the Stars will likely have to win by sheer firepower in more games than not this season, and Benn will be one of the lynch-pins of the top unit. He was moved back to his natural position of wing over the offseason, and the expectations are that will lead to a goal-scoring resurgence.
But will it?
After all, 0.8 points per game is nothing to sneeze at. That was just outside of the NHL's top 50 last year, including a number of players above him with very limited sample size (such as Alex Chiasson). And that's with the bum wrist putting a major damper on his output in the back half of the season.
Still, the Stars need him to take that big leap from All-Star to superstar. He has all the physical tools to do so. He's got a wicked, accurate, heavy shot, a solid physical frame and enough puckhandling skills to take on at least 10 Columbus Blue Jackets.
The likely advantage he will have this year is that of favorable ice time. Last year, the Stars often tried to fight fire with fire and put Benn, Eriksson and (while he was in Dallas) Jaromir Jagr out against other team's top offensive threats. While this meant they weren't necessarily facing the best defensive forwards in the league, it also meant they were playing against lines that could own puck possession and keep the Stars penned in their own end. In the end, it wasn't a recipe for success.
With Benn and Erik Cole flanking Tyler Seguin on the first line, this year's Stars are likely to try and give the first line a lot more favorable matchups. Lindy Ruff was never known for zone-start matching while with the Buffalo Sabres, but he is also a guy who, at least of his history, has liked to find "defensive units" and "offensive units" to deploy in specific situations. Rather than being the all-around answer, the Benn unit will likely be given prime offensive minutes while players like Shawn Horcoff, Rich Peverley and Cody Eakin are tasked with shutting down the other team's threats.
Ideally, that will lead to more prime offensive opportunities for Benn and his linemates. That top line will definitely be looked at to carry the heavy offensive lifting with some youth on the wings right behind them (as well as the ageless wonder that is Whitney). Chiasson and Valeri Nichushkin are tantalizing talents, but they are not at the point in their careers where they can be relied upon for big, consistent offensive numbers. That's where the team will look to Benn.
He will also be counted on for more than just on-ice production. As the Stars captain, he will be the face of the team in the media and the player looked to, at least publicly, set the tone on and off the ice. He is still not the world's most comfortable public speaker - though he is definitely becoming better when addressing questions from the media - and he will have to adjust to having a higher public profile.
But he does have a personality somewhere under the public face, and it seeps through every once in a while. This Canadian news clip from a few years back is one of my favorites because not only do you see young Jamie Benn get really excited over an impressive youth hockey goal, it also features a glimpse of the young man's personality under the layers of media training.
The public face will be just part of the adjustment to the captaincy. Benn will also have added responsibility from his teammates as well now that he wears the C. He will have to veterans in assistant captains Whitney and Stephane Robidas to help him through the transition, and he has always been a lead-by-example type player. It will just be official now, and the Stars will want to see growth from him in this area.
And from an on-ice perspective, here's more of what the Stars hope to see from Benn this season. Because when he is good, he is very, very good...