August is an interesting time for the NHL and the media surrounding it, as free agency buzz has calmed for teams without arbitration cases and prospect camps garner uncertain speculation. One of the offshoots of this down period is harsh criticism of how GMs have managed their cap space, leading to “hot seat” articles about the Tyler Seguins and Jamie Benns of the world.
We see the same surface-level analysis of the Stars cap from Northeast members of the media attempting to touch all bases in an ESPN-like fashion. For those of us more familiar with the Captain’s story, we understand that this is a much more complex pivot point heading into the ’23-’24 campaign than any other time in his career.
Sustaining the Bennaissance: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Last season was phrased locally as the Bennaissance, a revival of Jamie’s old game under a fresh perspective from new head coach Pete DeBoer. He notched 78 points, a personal best since ’17-’18 (36g, 43a, 79 pts) which was his only season under Ken Hitchcock and first season with the $9.5 mil cap hit he currently holds.
Since then, the scrutiny has been heavy and the defense-first mindset of his coaches has been even heavier. Pete DeBoer’s emphasis on transitioning from defense to offense from d-core to forwards has breathed life into Benn’s game which was previously subdued by Jim Montgomery and Rick Bowness. Nearing a point-per-game as the 2LW behind the league’s best Left Winger in Jason Robertson is the depth the Stars needed to vault themselves into perennial cup contention.
At the age of 34 with 2 years remaining on his current deal, the question of sustainability weighs heavy on our minds after Jamie’s reemergence last year. More or less, Stars fans want to see Jamie replicate last year’s performance to prove that he is no longer a rapidly depreciating asset and can captain this young core to a Stanley Cup.
Players don’t often see their game trend upwards for multiple years in their thirties, but if Jamie could imitate a Pavelski-like trajectory over the next few years then he’d be golden. He’ll get similar treatment as Pavelski, playing off a younger burgeoning star in Wyatt Johnston as Pavs has with Robo & Roope. Another promising stat to identify when projecting actually shares a concept that NFL Running Backs are currently wrestling with.
Jamie Benn’s trademark role of being a bruising power forward makes it harder to recover year after year, similar to how a Running Back sees their potency deteriorate after their rookie contract. The nature of physical play that comes with the role has reached a crisis point for utility, as indicated by recent Zoom meetings, and we’re seeing them paid less than kickers on average across the league.
For the NHL, hits are quantifiably tracked and Jamie Benn has racked up triple-digit pacing (across 82 games) for all but two seasons. The first happened in 2016, prior to his most recent point peak mentioned above, and the second happened last year with only 97 hits in all 82 games. With less impact from the prior season to recover from and lower pressure regarding ice time, Jamie will be in better physical shape to continue the Bennaissance than he has in any season prior.
Shifting the Narrative on Jamie Benn
With less ice time and less bruising play, some fans may see the new Jamie as a betrayal of what made him great as a Dallas Star for all of these years. Jamie Benn drew in plenty of Stars fans with his tenacity as a fighter, policing the ice as a physical force that protected his teammates, and pounding the drumbeat of the team’s rhythm for a decade.
To their point, Jamie Benn was able to top the league in scoring with his Art Ross trophy in 2015 while employing this type of play. However, a look at the rest of the leaderboard from that year reveals what makes Benn so great. The headliners from the list are either first-ballot Hall-of-Famers or have been ground down by the physical play demanded by the league’s status quo in their prime.
From 2015’s top scorers, Voracek, Giroux, Tarasenko, Tyler Johnson, and Pacioretty, are all in the same age group as Benn and have been diminished to lesser roles or sunk quietly into obscurity. Crosby, Ovechkin, & Tavares remain competitive on the list and provide outstanding company for Benn to be compared to at the end of the day.
Another similarity between Benn and those three is the captaincy of their respective teams and how that is emulated by their play. Sean Shapiro described his selflessness on a recent episode of Spits & Suds, notating that he’s the pulse of the team amidst all of the coaching changes. He’s always employed the style of play that each coach wants, and the Stars have finally circled back to a staff that maximizes his output.
Being such a leader, the Stars will reserve the Captaincy for Benn for as long as he is a Star. After his cross-check of Mark Stone in game 3 of the conference finals, a major fan upheaval resulted in calls for him to be stripped of his leadership title. While this is a hasty reaction to something that undoubtedly impacted the end of their season, it is a dismissal of this team’s composition in favor of a highly talented youth movement.
While a majority of the teams’ production comes from this youth, the leadership comes from the polished veterans. Benn has captained 6 playoff runs with a conference final, cup final, and all but 2 extending beyond the first round to compound that point.
The Road Ahead for the Stars’ and Jamie Benn
As the unshakeable leader of this group with two years left on his contract, his career arch is reaching the pinnacle. The core to win a cup is here, he and Jim Nill both understand that. Nill was recently extended a year beyond Jamie’s contract and I have no doubt that Jamie will be signed past Nill before Jim retires (ideally on the heels of a Stanley Cup parade).
If Jamie Benn uses this extension as an opportunity to take less so others can take more, in true captain fashion, the legacy he leaves could be more dynastic than we currently anticipate. This is where the Benn story gets most interesting to me as a personal fan of his and this organization. Determining the ceiling of the team while it’s still his to lead makes his story easier to consume over the negative outlook that has shrouded him in off-season’s past.
A Stanley Cup is the only thing that could pay off all of those years of “almost” that Jamie had to endure in his prime. Maybe it’s perfect timing that his role in this championship team is one of age and wisdom, where the most tested leadership features come to light.
He’s an example of the organic growth the team has undergone over his tenure and would be emblematic to the growing Stars that forge this team’s core currently. As Jamie steps into year 2 of the Bennaissance, so too does his team step into their championship window.