Difficult as it is to believe, Jamie Benn is entering his 10th season as captain of the Dallas Stars. Yes, it’s been nearly a decade since Benn donned the C back in 2013, and while the sweaters have stayed victory green, almost everything else has changed. Benn will start this year playing for the seventh different head coach in his Stars career in Pete DeBoer, so it’s no surprise that fans still continue to gravitate toward Benn as the face of the franchise. He is a safe harbor after so much else has deteriorated, departed, or just faded away.
Benn turned 33 in July. The captain who preceded him, Brenden Morrow, played his last full season in Dallas at the same age. Mike Modano, who preceded Morrow, played his age-33 season in the final year before the 2004 lockout and subsequent rule changes. We are much closer to the end than the beginning, in other words, and Benn’s scoring has been dropping steadily since his last top-shelf season under Ken Hitchcock. His ice time has followed suit. As you may recall, ownership was pretty quick to throw him under the bus the instant his production started dropping. So despite Benn leading his team to a surprise Stanley Cup Final run in the 2020 bubble, it’s hard not to think that tougher times are going to come before his contract expires in 2025.
Being the captain of a hockey team, and especially one in Dallas, generally has a certain flavor to it. It was unfortunate that former general manager Doug Armstrong chose to remove the captaincy from Modano the way he did back in 2006, but there’s no denying that Modano was never really the type of captain the post-lockout Stars needed as they geared up for a tough transition after the Tom Hicks era ended in bankruptcy. The other recent examples have cut from a more distinctive cloth. Derian Hatcher held the C for eight years before Modano as a large, noticeable sort, willing to do whatever it took to stand up for his team (and for Modano, in particular). Morrow was smaller, but he played big, as the epic 2008 playoff run reminded everyone—especially Milan Michálek. Even in his Portland Winter Hawks days in the WHL, Morrow was known as the sort of player who left everything on the ice.
Benn, meanwhile, made a mark early in his captaincy through a blend of thunder and lightning as one of the game’s preeminent power forwards. He may not have been as eloquent as Modano, who waxed poetic in the late hours after winning the Stanley Cup in Buffalo. But sometimes what Benn didn’t say was the most powerful statement of all. Just two weeks after an appendectomy in 2012, Benn was right back on the ice. He played through a grueling hip condition in 2015 and ended up scoring 87 points to win the Art Ross Trophy. No one could ever accuse him of giving less than whatever he had.
And so, like Hatcher and Morrow before him, Benn carried on the legacy of Stars captains who led with a bang. But that’s a lot easier to do when you’re capable of making noise on the ice with regularity, and Benn’s ability to do that has been diminishing, as it (almost) always does when athletes get older. He’s dropped from scoring nearly a point per game in 2017-18 all the way down to 0.56 points per game last season, and he hasn’t hit 20 goals since Jim Montgomery’s first season four years ago.
Benn likely understands the situation. Not so long ago, he saw Jason Spezza, with his own lucrative contract, go through the same scoring decline and diminishing ice time Benn now faces himself. Being the captain is all well and good when you can lead by example, but no hockey player ever wants to be relegated to a figurehead playing 11 or 12 minutes a night, the captain least of all.
Benn will need some reinvention if he wants to avoid that. For years, he took the ice alongside Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, the forebear to Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, and Joe Pavelski as Dallas’ tone-setting line. As recently as last season, Rick Bowness continued to put them together on multiple occasions despite disastrous results.
Thus far, DeBoer has preferred vastly different lineup choices while running a more offense-friendly system. Perhaps that sets the stage for Benn to reinvigorate his game in a variety of ways, whether or not he’s the one scoring the goals. If Seguin can still score by crashing the net rather than sniping from afar, then Benn would also do well to develop an alternate skill set to complement the next wave of young talent and their own preternatural scoring abilities.
He’s been given plenty of chances to do just that. This preseason, Benn has been spending whole games as the veteran with some of Dallas’ top three prospects as they push for an NHL roster spot. On Monday night, for instance, he played on a line and a power play unit with Wyatt Johnston for the second time this preseason. And while judging anything based on a couple of preseason games is a tenuous task at the best of times, you do wonder whether the next wave of young Stars might make Benn’s next three years a little more special than the last couple have been. If he continues to take the ice with some of them when the season starts, he just might find a way to give his game new legs while his actual legs get older. Just hitting 25 goals and/or 50 points would be a massive boost for Benn and the Stars given how starved for offense they’ve (both) been over the last few years.
Even if that doesn’t happen, there are fallback plans. For example, given Radek Faksa’s struggles on both sides of the puck last year, perhaps Benn can matriculate into a checking line role if his scoring never does rebound. His history playing at center makes it at least a plausible option to finish out the contract. Having a nearly $10 million center on your checking line is hardly ideal, of course, but a helpful role is far better than no role at all.
Any way you slice it, it can probably only be so good again, which is a bit depressing to think about for a player who has mattered this much. But sports are beautiful because they deliver romance alongside a much larger portion of disappointment. There’s just enough of the former to keep us coming back, but that doesn’t mean you should bet on the best outcome. We all slow down, get hurt, lose heart sometimes. Cynics would say this is the natural order of the universe, not a defect. I would say that sports are a reminder of our ability to persevere, to defy that default setting. One magnificent moment can heal years—even decades—of disappointment. Why not root for those moments rather than resign ourselves to failure and miss the magic?
We’ve seen this with Stars captains before. Despite Modano’s tumultuous relationship with the franchise post-captaincy, he made a point to return to Dallas to attend Morrow’s poignant retirement ceremony, watching as Mini Mo joined him in the ranks of players who signed a one-day contract to end their career as Dallas Stars. The Benn equivalent would be to locate a second wind in the back half of his career before retiring as the first Stars captain to spend his entire career in Dallas.
At least for now, he retains the institutional backing for that to happen. As Tom Gaglardi himself said in a recent interview, “If Jamie’s not scoring, Jamie still does a lot for the club. He’s our leader.” More pertinently, Benn’s deal is more or less impossible to buy out, and while there’s no shortage of creativity among today’s NHL when it comes to finding ways to make contracts disappear, Jim Nill is still the same man who opted to keep Spezza in the final year of his $7.5 million annual contract despite plenty of healthy scratches. It’s hard to see Benn leaving Dallas unless he asks to go elsewhere and the Stars eat some money to make it happen.
Still, it’s hard not to think of Jim Lites’ profanity in December 2018, just a few months after Benn had put up a 79-point season. Things change quickly in a player’s career. Now, in his final act, it’s up to Benn to change them for the better one more time.