When the dust ultimately clears following the Dallas Stars series loss to the Anaheim Ducks, and a moment can be taken to reflect on the season and the playoffs as a whole, it will become clear just how special of a year was had by Jamie Benn.
For nearly three years now, ever since it was clear that Brad Richards would soon be departing along with the impending departure of a number of veteran players, Jamie Benn became the focus of the team around which the roster would be built. A late-round draft choice in 2007 who was overlooked by many, Benn has enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks of the NHL and has continued to prove wrong any and all dissenters who have doubted him along the way.
From an after-thought and nearly-final selection in his first NHL All-Star game, to being left off the Team Canada roster only to bully his way onto the team thanks to an incredible first half of the season, Benn has shown the ability to rise to the occasion when called upon. One of the biggest questions heading into the postseason was whether his young and rather untested leadership could stand up against the scrutiny of a hard-fought postseason series against a top-ranked team and despite a 4-2 series loss to the Ducks -- the answer to that question is an absolutely resounding"yes."
Moved onto the wing and back to his natural position and forming one of the NHL's most dangerous duos with young center Tyler Seguin, Benn's game continued to evolve over the course of the season and all of the different styles of play he's shown throughout his career finally were able to merge into one. The penalty-killing specialist of his first two seasons (the quintessential "Jamie Benn" powerplay), the hard-charging and heavy-hitting power forward who started his career next to Mike Modano, the highlight-reel goal-scoring sniper and the stick-handling powerhouse of a playmaker were all aspects that Benn embodied this season.
When named captain last summer after the arrival of Jim Nill and Lindy Ruff, it surprised some but not all. After all, it was clear that Benn was on the path to the captaincy after his first few years in the NHL at a time when many teams were handing over the "C" to young and talented forwards. Many doubted whether he was ultimately ready for that burden, however, and questioned whether Stephane Robidas or Ray Whitney would be worthy place-holders of the position until Benn was ready.
He's not a fiery speaker off the ice and he's not the most eloquent with the media, and chooses to hide his easy-going and playful persona from the public eye as much as he can. Yet in hockey, the greatest leaders aren't always the ones that stand up in the locker room and deliver dramatic speeches or get in the faces of their teammates when needed. Instead, the greatest leaders throughout the history of this sport were those able to step onto the ice and lead their team to glory through their own play and dedication to success.
Benn finished with four goals and an assist in six games in the postseason, but the numbers don't do justice to the impact he had on the series. While the elder Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf received much of the attention, for both good and bad reasons, Benn was quietly the best player on the series from one game to the next and not once showed any signs of giving up and packing it in despite the odds stacked against them from the very start of the series.
The pride that fans, the media and coaches refer to when talking about this Dallas Stars team, and the pride they have for how the season ultimately went, comes from an underdog's determination to never give and to keep digging and digging until everything is spent and left on the ice. While the Stars might have lost the series in unconscionable fashion, no one can accuse a player on that bench of not giving it everything they had -- and more.
That drive and determination comes directly from their leader on the ice, a player who multiple times in the series took the proverbial bull by the horns and basically willed his team to follow in his wake.
Facing a 4-0 deficit in Game 1, it was Benn's determination and his goal that opened the scoring for the Stars and gave them the belief that they could indeed compete with the top-ranked Ducks.
In the first home playoff game in Dallas in nearly six years, it was Benn's goal that opened the scoring in a rather dominant shutout in Game 3.
Again facing a multi-goal deficit, Benn launched his team into a furious comeback win after his incredibly individual effort resulted in a won faceoff and a snipe of a shot just under half a minute into the second period. The goal sent the American Airlines Center into hysterics.
In Game 6, trying to protect a two-goal lead in the final minutes of the third period -- Benn dropped down and blocked a shot that came inches from his visor-less face. Not the smartest decision but one that many hockey players have made throughout the playoffs -- sacrificing their body for the good of the team.
It wasn't just the scoring or the blocked shots, Benn was dangerous on every shift and never disappeared -- when so many in his position have struggled before when the lights were brightest. In fact, Benn has now shown a penchant for truly rising to the occasion when the pressure gets higher and higher -- he was one of the best players in the Olympics for Team Canada and was instrumental in the Stars' run to the postseason.
Without Benn, and Seguin, having the breakout seasons of their careers the Stars would never have made the postseason and certainly wouldn't have shown to be as competitive as they were once they arrived.
It wasn't just opportunity; it wasn't just the move to the wing. This was Jamie Benn finally getting the chance to take control of a hockey team and make it his and everything that defined the 2013-2014 Dallas Stars and everything that will define the team moving forward will come from his example on and off the ice.
The end result might not have been what was hoped for, but Benn's growth as a leader throughout the season and then manifested into the playoffs is one of the best stories of the year in the NHL and gives an incredible amount of encouragement for fans and management alike moving forward. After years of showing flashes of what he was capable of, Benn finally took his game to a new level entirely while still showing there's plenty of potential for more.