Joe Pavelski is going to be front and center in the Western Conference finals.
Forget the narrative of the old guy without a Stanley Cup victory, joyfully along for the ride. Pavelski is the old guy who could lead the Stars to a Cup.
Against the Seattle Kraken, he scored eight goals, three of them game-winners. For good measure, the clinching goal in the decisive Game 7 came from Wyatt Johnston, the 20-year-old tenant who since September has lived with the Pavelskis to learn what it means to be a pro.
When the Stars are in focus, Pavelski will be in focus. He is hockey’s Benjamin Button, destroying aging curves and tipping pucks past goalies in the process.
If the Stars pull it all off, win the eight more games required for immortality, the Cup pass to the 38-year-old Pavelski will be shown in NHL commercials in perpetuity. Move over Ray Bourque. There would be a new standard for playoff excellence by an aging hockey star.
It would be a remarkable story. It also would overshadow the other old guy without a Cup, the one who would be completing the first pass.
Jamie Benn is 33. That’s young by human standards, but ancient by hockey standards because of the rigors of a physical game he plays, which had him in the discussion as one of the top five players in the world at his peak.
For years he lived in the spotlight. It was the Jamie Benn Show, co-starring, well, the rest of the Stars. But it was never enough to deliver the long-awaited championship. When Benn was at his peak, his teammates were mediocre. When they had true Cup potential in 2016, the goaltending faltered and Tyler Seguin went down with a slashed Achilles.
In 2020, when the Stars went on an improbable run through the COVID-induced bubble in Edmonton, injuries robbed them of a fighting chance against the Tampa Bay Lightning. What if Seguin wasn’t playing on two bum hips? What if Ben Bishop was healthy enough to play? Sure, Tampa Bay was the favorite, but the deck was stacked against Dallas.
Benn took the series-ending Game 6 loss the hardest. In a clip that went viral, Benn sat in full gear even after all of his teammates had filtered out. Later, through a clunky Zoom interaction with the media, he struggled to find the words to explain what the run had meant.
Benn was only 31, but with his play seemingly diminishing and the Stars staring at the injury fallout from the bubble run, his silence in the postgame press conference spoke volumes about a player who deep down realized he may have just been the closest he’d ever come to winning the Stanley Cup.
The next two seasons were tough for the Stars. They really never threatened to make the playoffs in 2021, and only Jake Oettinger’s heroics made last season’s first-round series against the Calgary Flames feel competitive.
Heading into the 2022-23 season the Stars needed a change, a refresh. And part of new coach Pete DeBoer’s deliverance on that mandate was allowing Benn to move into the shadows. His ice time dropped, his name was replaced on the marquee, and big stories out of Dallas no longer focused on No. 14.
And in the shadows, Benn thrived.
Micro-load management by DeBoer revitalized Benn’s game-to-game energy. His minutes dropped, but he was more effective in the time he was on the ice. Pavelski’s line with Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz took top billing, drove the stories, grabbed everyone’s attention. But behind them, Benn quietly finished with 78 points, 32 more than he had the previous season and his most since he had 79 in the 2017-18 campaign. He played a full 82 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since his mid-20s. He set a career-high with a plus-23 and a career mark for face-off wins, taking more than 60 percent.
He hadn’t found Pavelski’s fountain of youth, but the Bennasaince is real.
The Stars are partly in the Western Conference final because Benn allowed himself to be overshadowed. He embraced the supporting role on the ice, but he never relinquished the leadership responsibilities off of it.
Players who have left Dallas, and I’ve spoken to many, often talk about Benn as one of the best captains they’ve ever played for. He’s an everyman—his nickname is Chubbs for both his physique and the way he carries himself. Benn, even in his superstar days, has never asked a teammate to do something he wouldn’t.
When the Stars have needed a scapegoat, Benn has taken the public blame. As much as he dislikes any interaction with the media, he is often the one available when the team is at its lowest. He says little, but by wearing it each and every time, he often shifts the focus away from teammates who have been struggling, those who need to be protected. At his core, Benn believes the Stars are like a family; he’s Dom Toretto on skates, sans the catchy one-liners.
But unlike Fast and Furious, the Stars never jumped the shark. For a time, Benn’s career aged poorly, and he was exposed as a human instead of the indestructible machine he seemed to be in his twenties. Instead of being forced into a starring role, he took a step back and embraced his position in the background. He thrived in a new standard of excellence, individual attention be damned.
As the Stars prep for Game 1 against the Golden Knights on Friday night, Benn will primarily be an afterthought. Even on his own line, Johnston and Evgenii Dadonov will be larger storylines. Johnston is the new stud, like Benn once was, and Dadonov will face the franchise that tried multiple times to trade him during the 2021-22 season, even violating his no-trade clause in the process.
Benn likes it that way. It’s when he does his best work.