Way back this summer, when the orientation camp rosters for the 2014 Winter Olympic teams were announced, Jamie Benn didn't find his name on the list for Team Canada.
At the time, Benn was spending his summer in his hometown of Victoria, B.C., and while he wasn't quite sure of the rationale for the mild snub, he did vow to use it to motivate him.
"It’s obviously their decision," Benn said to the Victoria Times Colonist. "But it’s given me the fire for the start of the [NHL] season. I want to be on that Olympic team. I’m going to have to go out in the first half of the season and make them want to pick me. I’m just going to have to have the best first half of the year I can have and make an impact for the Dallas Stars."
The newly named team captain has done just that. In tandem with new center Tyler Seguin, Benn has been nothing short of spectacular for the Stars in the first 20 games of the 2013-14 season. He's just outside of the top 10 in the NHL in scoring on a technicality and has been a nightmare for opponents to defend.
Not only that, the switch back to left wing seems to have energized Benn's defensive game. He's become the master of the stick lift in recent contests and is one of the players the Stars most trust on the ice late in a close game.
But is that enough to earn him a spot for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi?
Let's say there are three locks for Team Canada, players that will be there come hell or high water, or at least a several-month-long injury, in Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and John Tavares. That leaves 11-12 roster spots up for grabs once you account for the scratches (Olympic rosters are 25 players with one of those extra spots almost always going to a goalie).
Of the 25 forwards who were invited to orientation camp, several have likely played themselves off the roster. Claude Giroux, Brad Marchand, Eric Staal and Jordan Staal are some of the big names who have started this season very slow. Other players, like Milan Lucic and Jordan Eberle, are playing well for their respective teams but were longshots to make the team from the beginning.
Take those nine away and add Benn and Patrick Marleau (and Tyler Seguin, who we'll get to tomorrow) to the mix and in my mind you have 19 players shooting for at most 12 remaining forward roster spots. Sure, the players mentioned above could force their way back into the conversation, but they are much bigger longshots at this point than someone like Benn who started the season very strong.
Here's how the 19 forwards that are likely in contention stack up in alphabetical order:
|Name||Team||Position||GP||Goals||Assists||Points||+/-||Shot %||Corsi Rel|
|Jeff Carter||Los Angeles||C/RW||14||5||4||9||-2||8.8||2.4|
|Logan Couture||San Jose||C||21||8||12||20||+6||10.4||3.4|
|Patrick Marleau||San Jose||C/LW||21||10||10||20||+5||13.7||5.5|
|Rick Nash||New York Rangers||LW/RW||3||0||3||3||0||0||2.9|
|Mike Richards||Los Angeles||C||21||5||13||18||Even||9.8||9.8|
|Martin St. Louis||Tampa Bay||RW||20||8||12||20||+9||17.4||-2.1|
|Steven Stamkos||Tampa Bay||RW||17||14||9||23||+11||23.3||2.0|
|Joe Thornton||San Jose||C||21||2||20||22||+8||7.1||21.9|
To the best of my knowledge, I tried to fill in which forwards have played different positions throughout their careers. The Canadian management may see the roles a little differently, though.
There are also obviously some injury question marks on this list. The Canadian honchos have said that Stamkos will have a place on the Olympic roster, but there's a distinct possibility he may not be recovered from his fractured tibia by early February. Nash is just now returning from an early-season concussion, and James Neal has also missed a large chunk of time. The recovery, or lack thereof, of these players will obviously be a big factor.
That brings us to Benn's resume so far. Benn can play center or left wing (and his proficiency at faceoffs makes him a nice option to have on the ice late in a close game), but he'll almost certainly be making his case for Team Canada as a wing. Of the likely options, he currently has the most points of players who are known to play left wing. Indeed, both he and Seguin are tied with Stamkos and one point behind Anaheim's duo of Perry and Getzlaf as the highest scoring forward options so far this season.
Benn's shooting percentage is respectable and doesn't show any sign that his goal production should drop - indeed, it's slightly below his career average of around 12 percent. And his Corsi Rel, essentially a measure of how much he drives shot-attempt differential as compared to his team average - is also respectable, though not in the same stratosphere as the high points on this list.
Additionally, Benn's large frame and good speed makes him an intriguing option for international-sized ice. While he's not likely to win a fastest skater contest and no one ever accused him of possessing a smooth stride, Benn is very slippery for his size. His ability to throw a subtle shoulder fake and step around a player is among his greatest offensive assets (and something Erik Johnson sees in his nightmares).
But while he has played a bit on the penalty kill and in last-minute, close-game situations for the Stars, he's not known as a defensive dynamo like Bergeron and he may not be the prototypical grinding forward the Canadian brass looks to in a lower-line role.
There's also the issue of how much value the Canadian brass places on NHL chemistry. There was a fair amount of grumbling about the inclusion of Kunitz, who no reasonable hockey fan would argue is an equal player to many on the list but who also has great chemistry with Crosby, on the orientation roster. If Team Canada works hard to keep teammate pairs together, that might work for or against Benn depending on if he and Seguin continue to light the Western Conference ablaze.
There's a lot of hockey still to be played before Team Canada has to commit to a roster, plenty of time for things to go right or wrong for Benn and the rest of the candidates.
But Benn has done at least one thing he set out to do before the start of the season. He said he wanted to force Team Canada to want to pick him after it looked like, from the way he wasn't on the orientation roster, that he wasn't on the team's radar.
That's not the case any more.
According to Stars general manager Jim Nill: "He's on their radar now."