FRISCO — Though Stars captain Jamie Benn’s production has dipped the last three seasons, coach Rick Bowness knows that the 32-year-old forward has one job.
“Anyway we can get it, we need to get back in the playoffs,” Bowness said. “Jamie Benn will be a big part. Regardless of what his points are at the end of the year, Jamie Benn will be a huge part of getting this team back in the playoffs.
“If the numbers aren’t what other people think they should be and we’re in the playoffs, we’re way ahead. If he has a great year individually and we miss the playoffs, that’s wrong.”
Benn has faced big expectations in his career. It’s what comes with wearing the “C” in the NHL, and earning $9.5 million a year, and winning an Art Ross and becoming a Canadian Olympic hero. He’s been the most recognizable part of the Stars franchise across his 12 years in Dallas.
But perhaps the expectations are shifting, even with the heavy price tag Benn carries. In the last three seasons, Benn has 127 points in 199 games, an 82-game pace of 52.3 points per season. Across the first nine years of his career, Benn averaged better than 20 points per season more than he has produced recently.
So this year brings change.
He’s shifted to center after spending most of his career as a left wing. Bowness moved Benn to center for the last 20 games of the 2020-21 season, with positive results. Benn said this season will come with more homework as he absorbs more responsibility at center.
“We’ll see how the exhibition game goes, but there’s definitely going to be a lot more behind the scenes of being prepared for games now,” Benn said.
Said Bowness: “He loves it. He loves playing center, and he’s skating great. He’s in fantastic condition, physically and mentally. He’s anxious to get playing. You watch all the drills, all the skating drills, he’s leading the way. He’s doing what you want your captain to do in terms of effort and execution in all the drills.”
Benn is currently slotted on the third line with left winger Michael Raffl and right winger Denis Gurianov. As Roope Hintz and Tyler Seguin man the top two lines, Benn’s role might coincide with a dip in ice time from the 17:47 he averaged last season.
Bowness has singled out Benn’s line as one of the best in the first three days of camp, but preseason games will be the real test for Raffl-Benn-Gurianov. Only one other skater (Jani Hakanpaa) in their training camp group is expected to be an NHL regular this season.
“Can they do in an NHL exhibition what they’re doing in practice?” Bowness asked. “We’re going to find out. To play with Jamie and Denis, you’ve got to be big, heavy and fast. Raffl fits that build.”
Said Benn: “[Raffl’s] the kind of guy that fits in well with me and Denis. He’s a smart player. I think he’ll be able to play in all situations for this group. We’ve been having some fun in the first couple days here.”
Benn still might shift to left wing occasionally. Lines change, slumps happen, and asking Benn to skate more than he has before at age 32 may require a respite on the wing for a night or two.