In his finest moments, Jamie Benn looks like this.
In late February, a half-minute into a game in Dallas against the Vancouver Canucks, the Stars’ star grabs a loose puck in the offensive end and drives to the net, eluding three defenders. But he fails to get a shot off, and the puck slips away.
A blink later he has the puck again, and from a nearly impossible angle, two metres from the net, he pops the puck up and in, pinging it off the underside of the crossbar for a goal.
Benn, raised in Victoria, is 23 and a potential marquee name in the NHL. A power forward with skill and tremendous hands – he won the shooting accuracy title in the skills competition at last year’s all-star game – Benn is a cornerstone of the Dallas Stars, a franchise that a decade ago was one of the NHL’s great teams before falling apart, waylaid by bankruptcy and four consecutive years missing the playoffs.
“We think his potential is unlimited,” Jim Lites, president of the Stars, says. “I don’t want to anoint him the saviour. We’re trying our best not to do that. If you look at our marketing material, we’ve given Jaromir Jagr significantly more play this year in our advertising than Jamie Benn. I don’t want people’s expectations to get out of line.”
Benn has kept expectations in line; he’s been erratic. His finest moments are amazing, but they occur infrequently this season, after he skipped training camp to sign a five-year, $26.3-million (all currency U.S.) contract. He has no goals in the past 10 games. He was hit with a $10,000 fine for an ugly cross-check from behind on the Edmonton Oilers’ Ryan Jones at the end of February. And his Stars are in ninth place in the Western Conference, facing the ignominy of another playoff miss.
Teammate Ray Whitney speaks of Benn’s resilience and confidence.
“The look of him this year, physically, he’s lost some of that baby fat, he’s more solid, he’s a better skater than I thought he was,” Whitney says. “But mostly I sense his attitude, that he knows he’s going to be a good player on a nightly basis. That’s probably the hardest thing for young guys to get over, the belief in yourself that you can do it on a daily basis. It’s tough to get to, you know, it really is for gifted players. Success early helps, but to have the belief, even when things don’t go your way, is what you need, and I think he’s there.”
Benn scored 22 goals in each of his first two seasons, then reached 26 last year, booking a career-best 63 points in 71 games. This season, he was slow to start, then blasted 13 points in 10 games and was named an NHL star of the week in early February. But for the year, Benn’s at 19 points (six goals) in 23 games, third on his team. He says it took time to find chemistry with his linemates, who include Jagr.
Benn, whose older brother Jordie, 25, plays defence for the Stars, is soft spoken, once joking that Twitter suits him with its 140 characters. His tweets are pictures of life. Last fall, while playing in Germany during the lockout, he touched 220 kilometres an hour on an autobahn: “Move over Dale Earnhardt Jr.”
Benn is already being mentioned as a potential member of Canada’s Olympic team next year in Sochi, Russia.
“I’ll think about that when it’s time to think about that,” he says. “Now it’s just Dallas Stars hockey and winning hockey games in a short season.”
Benn was a fifth-round draft pick by Dallas out of the British Columbia Hockey League before he starred in the Western Hockey League for the Kelowna Rockets, once scoring four goals in a Memorial Cup game. Last season he became the first Star to reach 100 career points before his 23rd birthday.
In Dallas, expectations are high, even as Lites tries to corral them. This month, a sports columnist looked at Dallas sports heroes in 2016 and foresaw Benn as an MVP candidate (as well as Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel playing for the Cowboys).
Jagr has a locker beside Benn in the Dallas dressing room. The 41-year-old, who was drafted a year after Benn was born, reserves comment on his young linemate.
“You’re going to have to give me more time to answer that question,” Jagr says, smiling. “Ask me after the season.”