Jamie Benn wasn't on pace for the Art Ross trophy when the 2014-2015 season started. But when 2015 rolled around, Benn would end up with 56 points through the remaining 46 regular season games of 2015, culminating in an historic four point night against the Nashville Predators.
Benn was 8.5 seconds away from losing that Art Ross to John Tavares. Now Tavares is 20+ points in his rear view mirror. Not many picked Benn to repeat his career year. He wasn't a shiny first round pick, and seemed more like a point producing flash in the ice pan to many observers. But the captain of the Dallas Stars is a red light performer. And he's making 2015 look like just the beginning.
How to Invade Hockey's Immune System
Your average human immune system works in brief, disruptive stages. The cells in your body don't have police scanners, or a little blue symbol to signal a verified Twitter account. And unlike us, they don't know how to identify someone on facebook according to the types of food porn posted on their timeline.
So how do they know how to stop the cold blooded killers that invade your body on a daily basis? How do they know the difference between the good guys and the bad guys?
It starts with molecules in your body categorized as the Complement system. They're a little like the body's forecheckers. Because they're effective, think Radek Faksa. Not Zac Rinaldo. Complement molecules skate on over to the pathogen, and stick around on the surface until the accumulated complement molecules become a warning system or beacon that triggers other cells (like macrophages, T and B cells, etc) to take out pathogens like a game of Galaga.
However, not every pathogen is so easily beaten by our immune system. And no where is this fact more magnified than in parasites. You probably know a little bit about parasites. Maybe you've seen pictures of that one isopod that replaces a fish's tongue. Maybe you even saw that silly horror movie based around it. But do you know how they beat our immune system?
Probably not. Parasites have long fascinated scientists for being nature's most dangerous criminals. Parasites figured out a brilliant solution to bypassing our immune system. That complement sysem I talked about earlier affects our own cells. But our body's own cells produce an enzyme called DAF (decay accelerating factor) that cuts away all that complement in order for the immune system to avoid mistaking the body's own cells with something more 'foreign'. Some parasites (like blood flukes) have figured out how to steal that same enzyme so that our body's complement never red alerts our immune system. Pretty handy, huh?
Jamie Benn might not take too kindly to being compared to a parasite, but once you get passed the images of chest bursting (which parasitic wasps actually do), tongue replacement, zombie creation, and mind control from your cats, what are you left with? Only the most efficient and sophisticated invasion vehicle ever devised. And Benn is the Conan of hockey invaders.
Exaggeration? Since the start of the 2015 calendar year, Benn has scored 105 points in 84 games. That's a pace of 1.25 points per game. That point per game pace is better than John Tavares (currently at 1.02 PPG for the 2015 calendar year), Sidney Crosby (.90 PPG), Alex Ovechkin (1.05), Evgeni Malkin (1.03), his partner in dude perfect crime Tyler Seguin (1.1), and even Patrick Kane, who admittedly sits within a snowflake's distance at 1.24 points per game this year.
Those are some truly great names. Clearly Benn belongs in some pretty good company. But how? It starts with mechanics, and ends with metaphysics. Let's talk about the former first...
'Sultan of Sagacity'
For most great hockey players, there is an athletic machinery at work that the naked eye can't miss. Whether it's Ovechkin's one timer, or Malkin's combination of speed and silk, there are usually one or two arguments in particular that validate a player's status in the puck courtroom.
Benn doesn't stand out in that specific mechanical way. He doesn't have blazing speed. He's not gonna blitz a goaltender with a one timer. Even the always articulate Justin Bourne reaches a jumbled hyperspace of comparables, calling him a Canadian version of Malkin, with "a little more chuga-chug, little less silk". Benn's effectiveness starts with something simple; a really good, really supernatural wrist shot.
Although this was back in 2013, nothing has changed. Not this year when he beat Darcy Keumper on November 28th. Not last season on April 3rd against St. Louis when he took one from the top of the circle. And certainly not in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs against Anaheim when he beat Anderson with a wrister directly off an out-of-zone faceoff.
Conventional hockey wisdom states that the closer a player is to the crease, the more likely they are to score. The special players aren't bound by conventions because they work to break beyond them. And Benn works diligently at transforming a meat and potatoes shot into Wagyu Ribeye. But there is more to Benn than just wrister mechanics.
More Menace Than Metaphor
You'd have to go way back to remember what it was like to watch Eric Lindros. I started watching the sport around 1996, and only vaguely recall the Legion of Doom. But I recall his reputation with modest accuracy, even back then. It was a well earned reputation associated with Lindros' red meat eating style of hockey.
Benn isn't quite the physical specimen that Lindros was. But there's no question that Benn can physically dominate when he wants to. His assist on this Tyler Seguin goal against Montreal is the kind of stuff made of Don Cherry bandwidth.
Like Lindros, he's also not immune to having a bare knuckle yard sale with a worthy opponent in the octagon. There's an age old debate in hockey about when fighting is justified. It's a debate that in my experience tends to be a fantastic waste of time.
Neither statistics, nor traditions illuminate its use. We can all agree that Jamie Benn being in the penalty box for five minutes does't make the team better. But we can also agree that this happens to be part of Benn's identity. If he wasn't willing to get into a fist fight for the sake of dominance, he wouldn't be the guy willing to stand in front of the net, or battle within the corners.
Benn is the counterpoint to the monocausal narratives that tend to come from modern analysis. This isn't a swipe at #fancystats. But Benn's method of menace comes from intangibles; a word too readily dismissed despite their quantifiable presence. Scoring a goal and/or helping score goals is a metaphor for dominance in hockey. But hockey is a unique sport in the way it ditches metaphors in favor of savage volition. And Benn is a dainty brew of the two in fierce praxis.
Parasites don't just invade; they remodel, and rearrange. So much so that types of screwworms are believed to contribute in teaching animals manners. I'm not saying that Jamie Benn is secretly teaching opponents how to properly fold a suit handkerchief whenever he's de-blading them on open ice. But his ability to score from afar, threaten in close, set up teammates, kill penalties, and separate the man from the puck makes him a unique talent in a hockey world that forces opponents to rearrange how they defend and counter. 2015 belonged to Dallas' captain. If Dallas wants 2016 to belong to the Stars, at least they've picked the right leader.