Jaroslav Modry. Aaron Rome. Adam Pardy. Jeff Woywitka. Sergei Gonchar. Mark Fistric. Doug Janik. Trevor Daley. Alex Goligoski. Phillip Larsen.
This barrage contains just a few of the more frequent names to occupy the bottom pairing of the Dallas Stars defense over the past decade or so. I can say for myself that I reacted to all these names fairly similarly, and you probably know what I mean. There have been many more names than these, of course, but the David Schlemkos and Ivan Vishnevskiys of the world are hardly worth factoring into this discussion, because we are talking about the Stars' best third-pairing defensemen to hold down the fort in some time: Jordie Benn.
Lindy Ruff has made some seemingly benign comments about the Stars' new acquisitions this offseason, and because it's the offseason, those comments have set off a storm of speculation, frustration and vexation. This was very noticeable when Oduya was signed--we talked about it a little bit here--and Ruff's most recent comments about where Johnny Abs might fit included a mention of a second pairing with Jason Demers. This is a good thing for the Stars, but it also raises the question of who will be occupying the third pairing this season. Jordie Benn is the veteran, while Patrik Nemeth, Jyrki Jokipakka and Jamie Oleksiak are all perfectly able to play NHL hockey on any given night. The kids will sort themselves out--those who are still here come October, at least--but all signs point to Jordie Benn's fulfilling the third year of his eminently reasonable $700K contract with the Stars whilst wearing skates more often than not.
I'm not trying to beat anyone over the head with how good Jordie Benn has been over the 180 games he's played with Dallas. You can see for yourself that not only has he been improving steadily each year, but that he's been, in many ways, comparable to players like our own Johnny Oduya. I am not exaggerating. In points and possession, the two players really seem to fill the same role. Granted, Oduya's done it for much longer, and he also plays more minutes and starts in the defensive zone more often, but it's not as if we're looking at apples and oranges here. We are more looking at Granny Smith apples and Cripps Pink Lady apples, as the last six or seven years of Oduya's career illustrate when compared to Jordie's:
The little circle up to the left was a very abbreviated stint early on for Benn, so you aren't committing any academic crime by throwing it out. The remaining seasons are not dissimilar, although you would be correct in drawing the conclusion that Johnny Oduya has had some superior years, which is kind of the point when you pay for a free agent. He's supposed to be better than what you have already.
Now before anyone gets too carried away, I am not trying to make a case for Jordie Benn as a serviceable alternative for Johnny Oduya--although that's not as wholeheartedly absurd as it sounds--and even if I were, that would ignore the biggest stated reasons for Jim Nill's signing Oduya. Those are things like his Vast Experience, Work Ethic, Winning Mentality, and a whole host of other factors that are not totally quantifiable, but which do have a generally accepted positive effect on one's teammates. If nothing else (and there is plenty else), you know exactly what you're getting with Oduya, even a fair bit past the age of 30, and his contract is nothing short of a steal. $3.75 million for a second-pairing defenseman who just won a Stanley Cup while being buried in the defensive zone night in and night out? That's a good deal. The Stars should be better if they put Oduya on the second pairing and Jordie Benn on the third pairing.
What Jordie Benn can do this year, though, will be fascinating to see. That graph up there is not a comprehensive summary of either player's career, but it is certainly no less valid a description of it than the other labels often applied to Jamie's older brother. Read any article about the Stars defense or Jordie Benn in particular, and you'll always see plenty of folks mentioning his mental lapses, his "passes to no one," or one of many other anecdotes about how he has a talent for undoing all the good he accumulates by making a critical mistake at the worst possible time. I've felt that way myself on the odd occasion.
That's the reason I started out with all those names up top, though. Because haven't you felt the exact same emotions of agonized frustration about most (or all) of those guys during their time with the team? For instance, I very clearly remember sighing heavily at mistakes by Jeff Woywitka almost every time he played--or at least that's what it feels like. In fact, there is probably a fair bit of confirmation bias in my memory of those players, because every single sports team on the planet has that one player whose talent level is a notch below the very good players alongside him. Because he won't have as many highlights, his mistakes are never balanced out in the viewer's memory, and so he becomes That Guy Who Always Screws Up. Again, it's not that those boneheaded plays never happened; it's the fact that they aren't the whole story. In many cases, they are not even a significant part of the story.
Tuesday night was so Jordie Benn.
The 27-year-old Stars defenseman was having a fantastic performance as his minutes were dialed up more than four extra to 21:48 in light of a knee injury to teammate Trevor Daley. Benn had seven shot attempts, five hits and two blocked shots. He was basically flawless and one of the key components in what looked like a 2-1 Stars victory.
And then … with 1.7 seconds left in the third period, an Anders Lee shot from distance deflected off Benn’s skate and past goalie Kari Lehtonen to tie the score and send the game to overtime.
Jordie Benn is the lowest-paid member of the defense. He worked his way to the NHL as an undrafted player after playing solid minutes for Texas, and despite the roster turnover and the win-now mentality adopted by management, he is still a member of the team. If you think that's just because he shares DNA with the captain, then you are greatly deceived. The lesser-known member of the Benn tandem managed to carve out a niche in the NHL, and he's put up some solid numbers while doing it. He still absorbs a healthy scratch every now and then, but his production has been consistent even with the occasional mistakes. Really, this should be one of the best stories on the team. Instead, his name elicits groans from a segment of the fanbase almost any time it's mentioned.
I get it, I really do. He's had his ugly moments. There's nothing wrong with fans choosing to exercise their right to pile on a player when he isn't playing well, but considering what Jordie Benn provides relative to what he is paid, being anything less than okay with his tenure is a pretty lousy position to take.
Most teams would be immensely grateful to have a third-pairing defensemen of Benn's caliber. The Chicago Blackhawks would have given a thousand St. Patrick's Day jerseys to have a Jordie Benn soaking up 16 to 17 minutes a night during the playoffs last year instead of the ghost of Kimmo Timonen and whatever rookie periodically escaped from the bench for five minutes during the Final. Jordie Benns are not readily available to most teams.
If the Stars end up with six defensemen who play better than Jordie Benn does this year, then obviously the team will be better off for it. But over the last couple of years, that has not been the case. Over the past couple of years, the Stars have been getting better, and so has Jordie Benn. Those things are not completely unrelated. If Jordie had stayed in the AHL for an only occasional callup to the team, fans would have been perfectly happy to see him get a taste of the bigs every now and then. Instead, he earned a spot with the big club only to see his shortcomings outweigh his very decent production in the eyes of many fans, and that is a shame.
However this season shakes out for the elder Benn brother, the Stars will be grateful for the fact that, as they did with Garbutt, Roussel and Dillon, they found an NHL player passed over by other teams who is contributing to their team in a meaningful way. If you consider things like this a meaningful contribution for a third-pairing defensemen making less than Jamie Oleksiak, that is: